With President Barack Obama signing into law a new bill in December promoting children’s nutrition, many school districts are looking more closely at the food and snacks offered to students. The legislation, the Child Nutrition Act, signed into law on December 13th, is designed to make more meals available to children through school free and reduced price meal programs and to improve the nutritional quality of school meals. Michelle Obama helped promote the initiative for nutrition during November of 2010 by visiting Riverside Elementary, a Miami area school which introduced salad bars to improve the nutritional quality of school lunches. The United Fresh Produce Association is donating 6,000 salad bars to schools, mostly in low-income neighborhoods, over the next three years, to support Obama’s Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools initiative.
Yet, the St. Paul, Minnesota school district is going even further. They have introduced a no sweets policy. Specifically, the district issued a directive sent to parents and teachers that “sweet, sticky, fat-laden [and] salty treats” are not allowed during the school day. St. Paul Schools Superintendent Valeria Silva decided to take this bold action after hearing about a study which found that 40 percent of St. Paul’s fourth-graders, most of whom are poor and minority, are obese. That comes to 11 percent higher than the national rate of childhood obesity. Critics of this St. Paul measure to restrict junk food suggest that it doesn’t address factors that influence what children eat once they are away from school, and it is a challenge to enforce.
Traditionally, “junk” foods have often been used as rewards for perfect attendance, positive behaviors, and academic accomplishments. Now, schools may need to find healthier foods to use as rewards or provide alternative types of positive reinforcement. Since emotional reward associations typically develop during our youth it makes sense to discourage using unhealthy foods as rewards, since emotional eating is a major contributor to obesity. Persons feeling emotionally distressed, lonely, depressed, or anxious could become stuck in the habit of self-medicating their emotional states by eating. Schools can be places that model healthy behaviors and lifestyles, and it makes sense for schools to avoid encouraging consumption of foods and beverages that are harmful to our health. Since academic and athletic performance are hampered by unhealthy eating habits, schools wishing to boost achievement and student performance would have reason to restrict food choices provided in school and to educate students and parents about nutrition and its effects on physical and mental health.
However, banning students from bringing sweets to school seems unrealistic. Aside from the difficulty enforcing such a measure, it would essentially impose punishments on children for taking to school snack items that are a major part of the surrounding culture. Those who work in child psychology know that modeling and rewarding positive behaviors is much more productive in the long run than trying to punish negative behaviors. Thus, activities that promote nutrition are praiseworthy, yet encroaching on personal freedoms to ban junk foods might not produce the intended results.