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Parents, Not Schools, Should Decide What to Pack for Lunch

Ohanian Comment: This article provoked more angry comments than any I've seen about the Common Core. Parents line up vehemently for and against school food policies. Those in favor of schools monitoring children's food are especially caustic.

My own fight to get Coke out of our middle school cafeteria took two years. In the end I won, but to get there I had to fight the PTA as well as the principal. My students wrote funny poems about my battle and in the end said, "Gee, thanks a lot, Miz O." But they didn't seem to hold a grudge.

I really can't imagine a teacher inspecting the food kids bring from home.

I found the rule "if they have potatoes, the child will also need bread to go along with it" very strange. As a schoolchild on a strict diabetic diet, I knew that if I wanted to eat the potatoes in the cafeteria, then I had to skip the bread. I also knew that if the whole lunch was off limits I could ask the cook to open a can of soup my mother had left for "emergencies."

My mom had told the school not to worry about feeding a diabetic, that I was in charge and knew what to do. I realize that many parents don't train their children in nutrition choices, but godhelpus, the school can't take on the role of lunchbox police. As the authors point out, what schools should do is provide good food in the cafeteria and plenty of time for kids to enjoy a relaxing meal.

By Katja Rowell, M.D. and Jenny McGlothlin

Last year, when a teacher confiscated Oreos from a Colorado preschooler's lunch, both The Daily News in New York and USA Today covered the story that set the Internet buzzing. The teacher's note, sent home with the preschooler, asserted that Oreos were not "healthy"-- those same Oreos that many of us enjoyed with a glass of milk in the 1970s and '80s.

As mothers and clinicians working with children with feeding challenges and extreme picky eating, we know good intentions behind imposing rules on foods brought from home can cause harm. School wellness policies not backed by research enable or require school staff members to hover, judge and even confiscate food. Not only is this shaming by teachers damaging to children, but it also violates one of the most personal decisions a parent can make: what to feed his or her child.

What and how parents feed their children is influenced by many things. Culture, finances, allergies, medical and religious concerns, a parent's own history around food and values, and, more important, the needs of the child in question all come into play. Some teachers have shared with us that they feel uncomfortable and untrained to address nutrition in the school lunch setting, and that the rules seem arbitrary -- like this rule from the school in our Oreo example, "if they have potatoes, the child will also need bread to go along with it." Says who?

Based on our review of the available research, we estimate that 10 to 15 percent of all American children and up to 80 percent of those with special needs struggle with feeding challenges. This is not an insignificant concern. These kinds of school incidents can lead to significant setbacks for children with complex food anxieties or challenges. Some children may have special needs around food that arenĂ¢€™t immediately obvious to a teacher, like the sister of a 13-year-old in the hospital from complications of anorexia nervosa, whose parents are desperately trying to teach the girls that all foods, including Oreos, have a place in a healthy diet. Or there is the instance of the little boy with autism spectrum disorder who eats well at home but is so overwhelmed in the loud cafeteria that for him to get enough calories and energy for the afternoon he has to have his most familiar and safe foods. If someone shames him for his sugary squeeze yogurt and Ritz crackers, he may eat nothing.

One child we worked with, who had had multiple surgeries and was weaned off a feeding tube as a toddler, enjoyed fruit cups packed in light syrup as her only fruit. Her teacher held one up in front of the class, calling out the sugar content as unhealthy, and asked the kindergartner to not bring it again. The girl was upset that her cherished teacher thought her food was bad, and refuses to eat it anymore.

It isn't about Oreos or fruit cups. Parents have the right to decide what to feed their child, with input from a doctor or dietitian, if necessary. Children have the right to enjoy lunch at school without undue scrutiny, and certainly without being called out in front of peers for a choice the parent makes. So, what can a parent do?

Talk with your child's teacher and school officials if you have concerns or want to head off this kind of interference. Ask them to provide evidence in support of their policies.

Teach your child that he is in charge of what goes into his body. We suggest using a "lunchbox card," which you can fill in and laminate and tuck into your child's lunchbox. It states: "Dear ____________, Please don't ask __________________ to eat more or different foods than she/he wants. Please let her eat as much as she wants of any of the foods I pack, in any order, even if she eats nothing or only dessert. If you have any questions or concerns, please call me at _______________. Thank you."

Teach your child to hand the card to the staff if they interfere with his eating. Even practice at home. It can be hard for a child to stand up to an authority figure, but he might be able to hand over a note from a parent. In reality, you are making life easier for teachers by releasing them from this responsibility.

There are ways schools can support wellness. Schools should honor every child's experience and family of origin and not shame children, particularly in front of others. If there are concerns about the contents, or lack of contents ( up to one in five children in some states live in food-insecure households)of a child's lunchbox, the staff should contact the parent directly. Keep the children out of it. A parent of a child with extreme picky eating may surprise a teacher by telling her that adding Oreos to the list of safe foods the child eats now brings the count up to five foods!

Schools can offer free breakfasts with balanced choices, and provide opportunities for children to play and be active. Support a safe and nurturing school community and prioritize recess. Allow ample time for children to eat, provide company and support by making cafeterias comfortable, and offer tasty school meals without pressure or shaming.

While school is important, a child's relationship with food is cemented at home. Eating meals together, celebrating family food traditions, minimizing grazing, and enjoying tasty and balanced food choices that include sweets and treats so your child can learn to manage them support good nutrition. Parents can and should advocate for their child and serve the foods they want to serve. And the school staff should leave the Oreos where they find them.

Katja Rowell MD is a family doctor, childhood feeding specialist, family cook, and author. Find her at thefeedingdoctor.com.

Jenny McGlothlin MS, SLP is a speech language pathologist, mother of three, and director of a feeding therapy program at UT Dallas Callier Center. Find her at extremepickyeatinghelp.com and co-author (with Katja Rowell) of the book Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating: A Step-by-Step Guide for Overcoming Selective Eating, Food Aversion, and Feeding Disorders.

— Katja Rowell, M.D. and Jenny McGlothlin with Ohanian comment
New York Times Wellness blog





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