The Letter

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license

Yesterday and today on the RRG Facebook page, there’s been a lot of discussion about candy Valentines and junk food at school parties, in general.  If you haven’t been privy to all of that, I’ll sum it up by saying that quite literally, my two boys came home from school on Valentine’s Day with so much candy from classmates that it truly could have been a re-stocking of their trick-or-treat bags.  I’m not into the whole “candy is evil and should be eradicated from the earth” stance, but neither do I think that a holiday that used to be about exchanging corny notes and crafts and showing loving kindess to one another should now be a competition for who can attach the biggest, sugariest, junkiest bag of red-dyed crap to their cards (or skip the cards altogether and just pass out candy, as if this really were just Halloween in February).

I don’t know why this is my tipping point, but after many months of acclimating to L.’s new school and keeping my mouth shut about various food-related annoyances, the tumbling mess of Sweet Tarts and Fun Dip packs that my son shook out of his backpack last night sent me over the edge.  Cap that off with the fact that he then had a “big piece of birthday cake” (his words) for a classmate’s birthday today, and I’m feeling as if there’s just nowhere to go to escape the sugarsplosion that constitutes an elementary school education these days.  So I decided to speak up and draft a letter to his principal, which many Facebook friends have urged me to share.  Here it is — freshly sent, so no response yet, but this is what I came up with to open the conversation with L.’s school.  Maybe it will help some of you figure out how to get your own ball rolling, too.

Dear (Very Nice Principal Guy),

I want to start by telling you that we’ve been so pleased with (super-great school) this year.  L. has had an absolutely wonderful Kindergarten experience so far, thanks in large part to (TOTALLY FABULOUS KINDERGARTEN TEACHER), and we are certainly looking forward to many more great school years with the (super-great school) community!

However, I wondered if I could open up a line of communication with you regarding the school’s wellness curriculum and philosophy about student health.  I realized that I don’t even know if (super-great school) has a Wellness Policy in place, or if there is such a policy administered at a higher level that governs Catholic schools in our area.  There are a few things about health and wellness at (super-great school) that I’m very pleased with, but a few others that have given me pause for concern throughout the year.  These challenges are minor and are certainly not unique to (Super-great school) – I think they’re things that many schools and families struggle with to some degree or another – but I felt it may be time to begin a dialogue with you about them and get a better understanding of your point of view.

Mainly, I think, I see a mixed message being sent.  You have a health and wellness curriculum that’s being taught to the children, and L. reminds me consistently of a “no-candy” rule (whether that’s Totally Fabulous Kindergarten Teacher’s rule or a school rule, I’m not certain, but he’s adamant about it, and I know it has been enforced in the lunchroom on at least one occasion).  Unfortunately, when the After-School program consistently hands out candy, ice cream, and junk food snacks to the children, and when “special” events like Halloween and Valentine’s Day open up the floodgates to parents sending in large amounts of candy to be shared and sent home with friends, I think it can be confusing as to where the line has been drawn.

Please don’t misunderstand me; I don’t advocate banning all class celebrations or anything like that.  But I’ve noticed a frustrating amount of candy and junk food coming home with L. at different points during the year, as well as being served at school/in the After School program.  I hesitated about speaking up, but I think the way a school community approaches food-based celebrations, rewards, and activities sends a subtle but clear message to its students about the way sweets and treats should be appropriately managed and incorporated into their lives.  When there is a wellness curriculum in place, as I know there has been, the “healthful living” messages taught in those class sessions can sometimes be overshadowed or unintentionally contradicted by the food culture students experience regularly.

In the current social climate, childhood obesity and diet-related diseases have skyrocketed, and no community is immune.  It’s easy to say of each incident, “It’s just once a year!” but in fact, 24 children in a class celebrating 24 birthdays with cupcakes constitutes a full month of classroom time in which they’d theoretically get a daily dessert; several holidays have already occurred at this point in the year which have added exponentially to the sweets and unhealthy modeling; and if families participated in all the fundraisers, etc., there are even more opportunities to eat pizza at Uno’s, buy sugary cereals and snacks for the Box Tops, get fries and sodas at the (major superhuge school event), and on and on, all in the name of school spirit.  Suddenly it seems to me to be not so easy to just pass it all off as “only once;” and with the health of children in our country and our very neighborhood declining with each passing year, it’s no longer just as easy as thinking of candy and brownies as regular rites of childhood.

I think of (super great school) as a place that really cares about the students and families and wants the best for them.  When I see you making wonderful efforts – with wellness classes, with physical education, with lunch periods of appropriate length, with recess time that far exceeds the poor standard set by public schools – I feel proud and grateful.  I just also feel as if there’s a lack of consistency in the way those ideals are followed through on in the daily life of the school, and I wonder if this is something that you’ve considered.

It’s time for me to stop talking now and hear your thoughts.  I truly want to know what your feelings are about student wellness at (super great school), and the ways in which you envision the policies around health-related issues supporting student achievement, behavior, and academic and social-emotional excellence.  Thank you for taking the time to read this letter.  I look forward to having the chance to talk with you further. 

Kindest Regards,

B.D.
(L.’s mom)

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30 Responses to The Letter

  1. This is GREAT! Will definitely be sharing on my FB page.

  2. Suzanne Gutierrez says:

    Perfect. Can’t wait to hear what his response is.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Let me begin by complimenting your diplomacy! You have written both graciously and assertively. Thank you for this positive model!

    There is one other issue in play that I think plays into this scenario in unexpected ways: food allergies. I am the mom of a child with anaphylaxis to peanuts and I have to say that the schools in Ontario are fantastic in their management of keeping our school safe for anaphylactic kids. Homemade baked goods in our school are not be shared. I am happy about that as I have seen well-meaning friends try to pick nuts out of cake so as to make if safe for my daughter, which of course does not make it safe!! As a result, I believe that schools and parents feel much more comfortable with a packaged, processed food that has clearly labelled ingredients if there is going to be a treat. I too have suggested this as the only concession to the no-sharing rule, but I think that this still leads to too much junk!

    Interestingly, our school does ask for parents to not send in food treats for sharing at the beginning of the year, but then parents do send them in and if the teachers do not distribute the snacks the parents get very upset. I think one solution is to be consistent and to have the no food policy stated on every newsletter and class calendar that is sent home throughout the year. For valentines day we did receive baked goods for the first time and I gave them away.

    However, food happens, so perhaps on valentines day or other events that people associate with food, schools can suggest that parents help contribute to a fruit salad celebration…send in whole fruits and the class can assemble a fruit salad together with clean knives and cutting boards that would be free of allergens. The kids learn to prepare healthy snacks and learn to associate these snacks with good times. Obviously omitting anything that is an allergen in that class like strawberries or kiwis.

    As a note, we had a gigantic christmas party this year for 30 schoolkids this year. I only offered fruit, vegetables, and cheese and forbade the guests from bringing treats because of food allergies. I was expecting craziness with that many kids, but while everyone was having fun they remained relatively chilled out…I attribute this to the lack of sugar rush!

    In the meantime, I hope you won’t mind if I use your wonderfully written letter as a model for a letter to our own principal.

    • redroundorgreen says:

      Thank you very much for your thoughts, and yes, please do feel free to use this as a model to open up your own lines of communication!
      I fully agree about the dangers represented by allergies when food is in play at school. I should mention that I wrestled with how much to say about that issue, and ultimately decided not to use it as a jumping-off place in starting the conversation at our particular school. The reasoning behind my decision was that our school is not nut-free and while I believe there’s a “no-sharing” policy on all foods, food allergies are dealt with rather quietly. It’s an important part of the discussion moving forward, and not just for children who have life-threatening allergies; my younger son is quite allergic to artificial food coloring and some preservatives, and while that’s not a “serious” allergy in the sense that it could do long-lasting harm, it’s absolutely serious to us. I’ve written before about my belief that in order to actually have a fully safe (and sane) food environment at school, there should be NO celebratory or shared foods at all — more on that here. http://www.redroundorgreen.com/2012/03/24/when-enough-is-enough/
      Of course, as you say, that may or may not be realistic, but there IS something in between “everything” and “nothing,” and I think that’s what we’re all working to achieve. Thanks for commenting!

      • Jennifer says:

        I love the article you have linked to. I also want to see food-sharing abolished at school, but I reluctantly admit it probably will not happen! I think we need creative non-food solutions (such as the ones you and your readers have posted elsewhere) to fill the void where cupcakes once stood. I think some parents want to make their child’s birthday special and just need some socially acceptable alternatives. I think the schools need to issue frequent reminders and have zero tolerance for surprise cupcake parties!

        And for the record, I think that all food restrictions need to be respected, not just for anaphylaxis. And since so much sleuth work often goes into figuring out what is triggering food-related problems we really need a blanket ban on sharing.
        Oh, and I am admonishing myself over the fruit comment. Sorry!

        • Jennifer says:

          I should say, all parents want their kids to feel special on their birthday, but some feel they need to mark the occassion in a special way specifically at school.

          • redroundorgreen says:

            I got it :-). And you’re right — parents want their kids to feel special on “their” day. But we can surely be more creative than we have been!

        • redroundorgreen says:

          HAHAHAHA No apologies necessary. It’s true that a full aversion to fruit is sort of rare among kids, but it’s part of the overall point, right? There’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution for every classroom these days, so it seems exclusive and even dangerous to try.

  4. James says:

    I like that it’s well balanced in weighing “I understand treats in moderation is perfectly acceptable” versus “moderation does not seem to be applied well at present when it comes to holidays/celebrations”. That way you don’t come across as “that mom” whom feels it is their duty to wage war against fun/tradition, but rather someone who appreciates consistency in all avenues of child education.

  5. Conuly says:

    Sometimes, it can be helpful to give an alternate suggestion instead of simply saying “don’t do this!”. (Then again, other times that comes across as super pushy, so you have to judge your audience.)

    For example, when it comes to birthday celebrations you might suggest that instead of one party per kid the school has one per month for all the kids born in that month. That would still have treats, but they’d be less in quantity. Or you might suggest that instead of an inside party with treats the kids get an extra recess and are encouraged to donate a favorite book to the classroom.

    As far as specific holidays goes, there must be other activities that can be substituted. A Halloween parade for a Halloween party, maybe, a few art classes to make valentines cards instead of buying them wholesale (which is why there IS candy given out, because the cards in boxes come with candy to make them ostensibly special) or, as I read once on probably spoonfed, have each child make one big snd special card, either for themselves or a secret classmate, and during the party the other kids sign that card instead of giving out one card to each kid, per kid, which is… A heck of a lot! In a class of 24, that’s nearly 600 card exchanges. You can suggest that more time be spent in games during parties (seven up was what we did in Brooklyn, but when we moved to Staten Island they played another one I didn’t know, point is there are many games you can play within a classroom) to take the emphasis off foods.

    Unless you think the school will take that badly, in which case I suggest a petition.

  6. Conuly says:

    Oh, as far as box tops goes, I have been known to take them from recycling bins and hit people up ahead of me in the grocery store. Verily, I have no shame.

    But what’s really good about it is that if you go through the box tops for education portal you can shop at a number of online retailers and a portion of the money gets sent back toward the school. You can also enter in giveaways every day. If you’re not buying the dubious “food”, this is a good option.

    But really, I wish that the schools would just tell us how much money they need per kid to make their budget shortfall and we could just write them a darn check at the start of the year! I also wish they’d just get all the supplies themselves and we’d pay a flat fee for them. They could buy in bulk and save money that way, and nobody would have to go shopping around to a dozen stores to get pencils and backpacks and hand sanitizer.

    http://www.boxtops4education.com/earn/bonus/Default.aspx
    http://www.boxtops4education.com/earn/marketplace/Default.aspx?WT.ac=BBT_OPE

    • redroundorgreen says:

      Surely, there are “good” things about the Box Tops. But you must admit that not many of us would go the way you do! :-D I know families that buy junk food solely BECAUSE there are box tops on the items and their kids are pressuring them to get the stuff so they can contribute and win the prize — pizza party or whatever it happens to be at their particular school. Then, of course, they’re eating the food because they don’t want it to go to waste. So it seems as though it’s encouraging less-than-optimal habits in many, if not all, families, no?

      • Conuly says:

        Given that it’s a marketing scheme at the end, I’m not sure what else you can expect. Of course, I hate how the school does it as well, with a competition between classes that inevitably is won by the class that has that one student with a huge family that eats a lot of crap….

  7. J.C. says:

    I feel like sending a nearly identical letter to my son’s school! We’re a military family so move around a lot & have trouble figuring out the new policies for the different schools for my son. While his current school is better than his school last year as far as junk food goes (he used come home nearly every day with a tootsie roll for good behavior!), I hate the amount of junk they get for these special treat days. Thus far, no other parent seems to have issue with this or any other unhealthy policies (or lack thereof) at the schools. I’m already one of “those” moms in their eyes, but hopefully they start to listen for the sake of the kids. I can’t wait to hear how the response went for you!!!

    • redroundorgreen says:

      I’m still waiting for a response, but I do hope you’ll send a similar letter (and encourage you to do so). Feel free to use mine as a template for your own school. I don’t think any of the other parents at L.’s school have the same issues I do, either, but it’s starting to seem as if I’ve GOT to become “that mom” at any cost in order to be true to myself and to our family’s beliefs — not to mention, doing what I really believe is the right thing for ALL the kids.

  8. Fantastic letter! I have also been involved in a vigorous FB debate with local moms about this issue and it has been quite amazing to see how people cling to candy as a symbol of childhood and as a right that school should not be allowed to take away. Astonishing! I will definitely bookmark this until such time as it becomes appropriate. Thanks so much! And thanks to School Bites (https://www.facebook.com/SchoolBites?ref=ts&fref=ts) for putting me onto this!

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  13. Patrick says:

    Great letter, and I’m glad it’s getting some attention! Are you aware of the Rudd Roots Parents website? It’s meant to provide parents with research-based tools to help change the food environment in schools. Here’s a video from their website that gets at the same issues you bring up here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=n_VF2KiLGBg

    It’s ruddrootsparents.org

    • redroundorgreen says:

      Yes, I have seen the Rudd Roots site before — great resource, and thanks for reminding me of it and posting here for everyone to see!

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  15. Sydney says:

    I very liberally ‘borrowed’ from this to create my own letter. Is that okay? Also, did I miss a post about a response? Has there been one yet?

    • redroundorgreen says:

      Of course that’s okay! Whatever works for people is what I want. And no, you haven’t missed a post — there has been no response and I’ve had a couple of other fish that needed frying with the kids before I could get back at it with the principal.

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