I started my two boys at a new daycare center last week. Although the school does provide meals for the kids, I had secured a doctor’s note to allow me to bring all of their snacks and meals from home. My children and I eat gluten free and my oldest just tested to be allergic to corn and food dyes. With these food restrictions, I felt confident that my boys would be exempt from the majority of junk foods that may be presented in the classroom. I was apparently completely naive.
On the first day of class, as part of an activity to learn about mixing colors, my son was fed three jumbo marshmallows dipped in food coloring. This means that he was given the following ingredients:
- Corn syrup
- Modified Corn Starch
- Artificial Flavor
- Tetrasosodium pyrophosphate
- FD&C Blue No. 1
- FD&C Red No. 40
- FD&C Yellow No. 5
If you would like to know about where these ingredients come from or their health effects, you should visit Center for Science in the Public Interest. They maintain a food additive database and also have app available called Chemical Cuisine.
On the second day of class, I had noticed on the class calendar that they would be celebrating an “un-birthday.” Preemptively, I packed a gluten-free cupcake in his lunch box in case the class would be having cake. That morning I had a more direct conversation with the teacher about the foods that my son needs to avoid. She seemed very accommodating and assured me that whenever they were going to have food in the classroom, I was welcome to bring a substitution.
At pick-up that afternoon, my son reported that he had been given “icing that he could have.” When I asked him what color it was, he said, “It was white so I could have it.” It turns out that what he was given to spread on his organic gluten-free cupcake was, in fact, Cool Whip®. This means that on day two he was given the following ingredients:
- Hydrogenated vegetable oil
- High fructose corn syrup
- Corn syrup
- Skim milk
- Light cream
- Sodium caseinate
- Natural and artificial flavor
- Xanthan and guar gums
- Polysorbate 60
- Sorbitan monostearate
- Beta carotene
On the third day of class, I asked to speak with the school director. I expressed my opinion that the use of sugar-laden junk food for classroom activities was not only unnecessary but also unacceptable. She graciously allowed me to say my piece. But in the end she made no gesture even to acknowledge the most simple of nutrition arguments: that sugar is bad for kids. Instead she explained that every family feels differently about these things and they will do their best to accommodate my needs. Again she resorted to the solution that I am always welcome to “bring in substitutions.” And exactly what substitutions would she suggest I bring in for marshmallows, food coloring, and Cool Whip®? I didn’t bother to ask.
As I walked out of the school that day, I saw a cart of animal cookies being rolled down the hallway for snack. I looked again at the weekly lunch menu posted by the door. The lunch was scheduled to be soup served with saltine crackers, a brownie, and milk. I walked out the door relieved that my boys each had a bag filled with nutritious food for their day.
But I also walked out deeply saddened by the food culture that has permeated all levels of our society down to the places where we care for, nurture, and educate our babies.
I knew that I was not going to change the environment of food at that daycare center. The director had made that more than clear. My remaining options were to either police the food allowed to touch my children’s lips on a daily basis or just get out.
I decided that my job as a mom trying to teach her children about nutrition would be much easier if that message were reinforced (or at least not contradicted) in the school.
So I spent the morning touring other childcare centers. Not a single one was free of all processed, GMO-laden, refined and sugary foods – not even the Montessori school with a tuition rate of $95 per child per day. Apparently the only way to keep your children away from these foods is to keep them at home.
But what fun is that?
In the end I found a center that seems to be much more in line with my values. While they are not entirely junk-food-free, they are significantly more aware of the importance of nutrition and the value of teaching our children to eat right.
We will have a “first day of school take two” next week. I know that there will be ongoing discussion with my children and their schools about food and nutrition.
If you are a parent who also cares about what your children eat, please speak up! If we as parents stay silent on these issues, nothing will ever change.
My only hope now is that that the foods I see pass my little boys’ lips in the days, weeks, and months to come, have no resemblance to marshmallows, food colorings, or Cool Whip®.