WARNING: The following soapbox issue may result in passionate outrage. Viewer discretion advised.
During the pandemic, when school lunches were free for all students, I caught a glimpse of the foods being given (and marketed) to children in the school system.
I. Was. Appalled.
Well, before I really get going on this soap box…Let me take a step back.
My child was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in pre-school. He is high functioning but has some issues with social boundaries. Over time, I noticed that certain foods he was eating were linked to negative behaviors, so I started looking into it. We discovered that my son has a sensitivity to eggs and gluten (among other foods) and started an elimination diet. We also know that too much sugar or certain food dyes affect his behavior. So, if he has too much sugar, he is more likely to get in trouble for his behavior and that doesn’t seem fair to me. If we allowed him to eat the sugary food, we are the ones who set him up for failure, so he shouldn’t be punished for OUR choices.
When he started attending the local public school, we packed his lunch. We know he had certain dietary needs and wanted to make sure he stuck to them. I did not think to mention these dietary issues to the school, since it’s not a “true” allergy. Fast forward to the pandemic. Since school lunches were free for all students, there were some days we would get a bag of food sent home, whether we wanted it or not. I didn’t pay any attention to the school lunch menu prior to that, since we were packing our son’s lunch. I was shocked at the “food” in these bags. I was even more shocked when I pulled up the school menu and realized that these foods were the norm. Breakfast foods like chocolate donuts and flavored milks, a giant Rice Krispie treat, French toast sticks and syrup. Lunch foods included the usual chicken nuggets and fries, pizza, or nachos. I even saw something called a protein pack. It looked promising until I saw it was a bag of Doritos, a yogurt cup and a cheese stick.
Do we really feed our children these garbage foods and expect them to function and learn in school? Could these “foods” we give them lead to the rise in behavior issues and the prescribing of ADHD medications? How can we expect our children to focus, pay attention, and learn when we are bombarding their little brains and bodies with chemicals, sugar, and empty calories!?!? Where are the vegetables?
I was still packing my son’s lunch, so I thought he was at least getting good nutrition. However, his behavior at school started to take a turn. He started getting in trouble and sent to the office. We would get progress reports and his behavior was abysmal at best. What was going on? I would ask him, and he would just shrug. I didn’t know how to help him, which was so frustrating.
Then, one morning over breakfast, my son started talking about the nice lunch ladies. So, I started asking questions. Come to find out, the lunch ladies were bringing a cart around to the classrooms with breakfast foods and lunch foods and he was just sliding his card and getting foods from the cart like the other kids in his class. Since school lunch was free during COVID, it was going through (even though I didn’t put any money on his card). He was excited because they would bring him chocolate donuts, chocolate milk, and other tasty treats.
No wonder his behavior had taken a dive. I talked to his teacher and explained about his dietary needs, and she also informed me about birthday treats that often made an appearance in her class. So, we worked out a plan for her to keep a stash of special treats that he could eat without gluten or eggs (and low sugar) for the birthday parties. I also had a long conversation with him about the correlation between his behavior and the special lunch lady treats he was partaking in. He seemed to understand, and the behaviors started to improve a little.
A few months later, parents were invited to a class party for the end of the year. The kids played a bingo game and the teacher handed out candies to use as markers for their bingo boards. Unprompted, my son suggested that candy was not a good idea for him and asked to use the small counting blocks instead. It was a proud mom moment! I have also noticed that he reads the nutrition facts and ingredients on the back of the package to make a choice if he should eat it or not. Sometimes he will still choose to eat just one (cookie, cracker, etc.) that has gluten and other times he decides it is not a good idea.
The bottom line is that we must do better by our children. They are looking to us as examples of healthy living and healthy eating. If we preach that they need to eat their vegetables, but serve them pizza, donuts, and crispy rice treats in the cafeteria or always grab fast food on the way home is that teaching them to take care of their bodies? If we talk to them about balance nutrition, but constantly feed them empty calorie snacks, sugary treats, and processed packaged foods, is that sending the same message?
Encourage your kids to eat the rainbow of vegetables that are available. Make it a fun family event to try something new! You might discover some new favorites! Try cooking at home and teaching kids to read ingredient labels so they know what is in the foods they are eating. Small pivots can make a big difference.
Are you ready to PIVOT to functional health and wellness?