The Politics of Food Meets the Politics of Education

Images My kids go to different schools, because Ian gets shipped out of district to a school that has a classroom for kids with special needs. The schools have different policies on junk food.

It was Jonah's birthday last week. Before school, we drove to Dunkin' Donuts and I got 20 of the goopiest, spongiest, slurpiest donuts that you could possibly imagine. None of the ingredients were found in nature. When you take a bite of those babies, they are so soft that chewing is optional, but the grit of the sugar stays in your mouth for a while. You need a Coolatta to wash it down. How many weight watcher points is that?

At Ian's school, we were given a list of the appropriate foods to bring in for birthdays. They included carrot sticks, rice cakes, and air popped popcorn.

I honestly don't give a crap if my kids get donuts in school. They don't get a lot of sweets at home. They are so skinny that I have to buy shorts with those adjustable waist rubber bands. But this donut thing is a big deal for some of my friends and it has erupted into a frenzy in school districts around the country.

Some links: Joanne Jacobs, Tim Burke, The New York Times. We talked about the Cookie Police last year.

John Sides points out this story is an example of how the politics of food meets the politics of education. Two of my favorite topics.

I am huge sucker for farmers markets and organically grown food. I spent a long time yesterday thinking about starting my own vineyard after reading this article. However, the foodies have to prevent themselves from being Food Nazis. Dowd talks about how the Obamas are having a tough time walking that line.


15 thoughts on “The Politics of Food Meets the Politics of Education

  1. At our house, the occasional doughnut is certainly acceptable (in fact, now I want a doughnut right now), but at my kids’ school, it varies wildly. In kindergarten, kids were allowed to bring in cupcakes for their birthdays, but this past year, they changed that policy, and now you are encouraged to bring in goody bags (with no candy) or a healthy treat– I baked muffins and brought them in with fruit.
    At the K-12 private school where I teach, we had a big debate about soda machines in school– first they took them away, then there was a great uproar, and now we have a “Coke closet,” that is only open certain times of the day, and the proceeds go to the senior class, which is responsible for operating/stocking it.
    I think usually the debate is most valid in populations where the concern is about nutrition at home, so the cost of a doughnut in school is higher for them, but when there is so much evidence about the unhealthy nature of tax-dollar-funded school lunches, is a cupcake really going to hurt anyone?

  2. At my high school, student council sold donuts at morning break. I think they later stopped us from doing it every day, partly due to nutritional issues and partly due to the fact that break had discipline issues. Anyway, I developed a life-long love of maple sticks.

  3. There’s also the allergy issue. Someone in my daughter’s class has a bad peanut allergy (so does my son, but he’s ok so long as it’s not real peanuts or peanut butter in the food). Someone in my son’s class has a bad dairy allergy.
    Popsicles are about all we can bring in.

  4. As a highschooler, I regularly used the vending machine to convert my lunch money into one juice box and one roll of cherry lifesavers.
    The airpopped popcorn and carrot sticks thing at Ian’s school is kind of nutty, but it’s really easy to wind up in sugar hell, without really noticing it. I was displeased with the stuff preschool teachers were handing out in DC, but since we’ve moved to our area of Texas, I notice that every person (except the dentist) who has professional contact with my children is giving them sweets of some kind, everybody from the CCD teachers to the ballet teachers (!!!). I throw out enough candy to keep a single child permanently high, even while doling out pieces of candy at snacks and meals. I think one of the reasons that we see so much candy is that a lot of these teachers use candies as rewards and motivators. (I’m currently using M & Ms to potty train a little boy who is 4 years and 3 months old, so I understand without condoning.) When I ask my daughter what she likes about ballet, she says it’s the Starbursts they get after class. Sigh.

  5. I’ve been baking a lot more recently so I know that at least what the kids are getting is real butter, flour and sugar instead of HFCS and processed yadda yadda.
    Meanwhile, my face is breaking out. I’m convinced it’s the butter, which I normally never eat except in home-baked goods.

  6. Yeah, there is a lot of candy motivation at our school of a kind I don’t recall from childhood. I still think omnipresent soda and less walking and biking are bigger issues than the junk food in class, though.
    You know what pisses me off, though? I’m a great baker, but only packaged treats are allowed. So I can pay $3 a cupcake at the fancy bakery for birthday treats, or bring in artificially flavored supermarket crap cupcakes.
    i read an interview with that Meme person in which she denied anorexia but admitted she hadn’t eaten anything at 3 PM that day because she didn’t like to eat before working out. . .

  7. “The airpopped popcorn and carrot sticks thing at Ian’s school is kind of nutty, but it’s really easy to wind up in sugar hell, without really noticing it. ”
    You know, there’s absolutely no substantive scientific data to support the sugar hypothesis. There have been no valid studies that show that typical kids are more hyper after consuming sugar. I know that no one is gong to believe me (and, I think that’s not irrelevant to the studies). But, the studies just don’t support the idea that kids get wild when you give them sugar.
    I’d detest the whole carrots thing (though my solution when required to bring healthy treats is to bring junk toys; not sure whether that helps the world in general, but it avoids the restrictions. I think the issues they’re balancing in a special needs classroom are more complicated, though. Most importantly, I think a typical 8 year old should be required to follow her family’s rules, even if, say, cupcakes are made available. I know it’s tempting, but the world was not designed to avoid temptation (perhaps we’d get fewer divorces that way, too). But I’m not sure that I can argue the same for a special needs class, where some kids might not be expected to be able to function in a way that I expect from 8 year olds.

  8. I think bj’s right that having restricted snacks does have its place in a special needs setting (to help home-school continuity), but I don’t think I could serve rice cakes at a birthday party with a straight face. What’s wrong with fruit or pumpkin whole wheat muffins or blueberry whole wheat muffins, anyway?
    I didn’t mean hyperactivity when I used the term “sugar hell.” I meant:
    1. food as a motivator (this is apparently a huge psychological no-no)
    2. food being equated to love
    3. sugary treats leaving no appetite or interest in actual food (i.e. my high school experimentation with 100% sucrose and fructose lunches)
    4. kids’ junkie-like pursuit of the next sugar fix

  9. Laura, I’m also a browsing-for-organic-arugula type who dislikes the paternalism of “carrots, not cupcakes.” Something missing from the discussion, I think, is the distinction between processed and homemade. I’m not crazy about the idea of my child eating a cupcake a week preserved with sodium benzoate and colored with food dye number whatever. But I don’t mind in the least if he eats one made out of flour, eggs, and sugar. Of course, there’s absolutely no way for a school to police that. But I don’t see how it’s possible to have a discussion about school nutrition and childhood obesity without distinguishing between highly processed foods verses whole foods.

  10. At least on the Italian side of my family, food only equals love if cooked at home. Ideally involving a sauce that simmered for at least 6 hours.

  11. Insofar as the issues are different in special needs classrooms, I think it’s much less likely to be an issue of home-school continuity (even with special diets for some kids) and more of an issue of special needs kids being motivated on strict behaviorist principles in the classroom. I’m not crazy about either the strict behaviorism OR the extra candy.

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