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The Great Divide: I Need Michelle's Help

By Tina Traster

February 10, 2010 -- Hey Michelle, I hear you're committed to fighting childhood obesity. Can you lend a hand?

I've been trying to quash bad food practices at my daughter's elementary school for several months, and I'm not talking about cafeteria food because that's a bigger fight. I've simply been trying to get the school principal and the "wellness committee" to eliminate junk food in the classroom.

You'd think I was calling for the end of the slide ruler or the No. 2 pencil.

Specifically, I want to put an end to the Dunkin' Donut fest every time a child has a birthday and to stop the practice of distributing junk-filled goody bags on every holiday.

I understand parents have a strong desire to incorporate festivities into children's lives but why not change the way we do that? Why not offer children healthy choices? As the First Lady is saying, this is the time to tackle the health crisis, and what better place to begin than at elementary schools?

Recently I thought I'd made progress on this front, after embarking on a campaign for change. On February 4th, the principal sent home a note to parents requesting they refrain from sending treats on Valentine's Day. Cards, she wrote, are a better option.

There was even a second, more emphatic note that said: "NO CANDY OR TREATS OF ANY KIND."

I couldn't believe it. I whooped with joy. My daughter and I did a victory lap and high-fived in the kitchen. She's seven, but she's all for making her school a healthier place.

The blue skies didn't last.

Within 24 hours, the principal caved. In a note sent home the next day she wrote, apologetically "parents have shared that they have already prepared cards including small treats... In recognition of this dilemma, children may...exchange cards with small treats."

Who is this principal afraid of? Why wasn't she able to find the backbone to stand by her decision?

The answer is fear. Fear of taking on some unspoken sacred American entitlement that says it's better to ply kids with crap than to embrace smarter, healthier food policies. It seems it's easier to dismiss me as the crazy lone loon who is trying to deny children the pleasure of being children.

I know that the principal understands the First Lady when she says, "nearly a third of children in this country are either overweight or obese and a third will suffer from diabetes in their lifetime." Yet my principal and likely many others are afraid to take baby steps.

Recently, to help the principal see what's wrong with feeding Dunkin' Donut munchkins to children, I sent her and our wellness committee an email that said:

A munchkin, made with artificial colors and artificial flavors, has 60 calories. Half of the calories are derived from fat. A single munchkin has 11% of the saturated fat suggested for a child's daily diet. THAT'S ONE MUNCHKIN. They also have partially hydrogenated oils (transfats) and TBHQ, a product made from butane. (This information was taken straight from the Dunkin' Donuts' web site).

Ironically the butane is used to hide the bad taste of chemicals.

She need only glance around in my daughter's classroom or in the school's halls to know that every classroom experience involving food is either an opportunity taken or missed.

I have found that administrators and wellness committee members vacillate between reason and absurdity. More than once I've been told that by giving children these foods in the classroom, they are learning how to make "choices". When the choice is either a chocolate or frosted munchkin, no good decision is possible.

My generation grew up in an era when we never thought about what we put in our mouths. Certain candies and treats became associated with fun and love. My peers feel as though they are depriving their children of love if they do not provide these experiences.

Maybe I'm not a sentimentalist but I know there are plenty of healthy ways to celebrate life's small moments, without filling my daughter's digestive system with chemicals, preservatives, additives and food coloring.

If Michelle Obama hopes to make inroads she's got to convince principals like mine to make a connection between science and policy.

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