Is It Lunch Shaming or Lunch Lessons?

Health Writer

A recent Good Morning America segment featured a mother who says she was shamed by individuals working at her daughter's school for what she packed in her daughter's lunchbox.   She claims she ran out of fruit and sent Oreo cookies as a snack instead.  She says her daughter came home hungry, after the intervention at school, because she did not eat the cookies.   The school claims it did offer a healthy snack.   Where do I begin?

The parent perspective

There seems to be a huge pushback from many parents when they feel that someone is stepping on their parental rights.   Parents are clearly trying to do their best.   Many parents become concerned when kids begin to get picky or finicky, and turn to food bribes, fast food, unhealthy snack foods, "just to get their kids to eat something."   Parents typically bring their own learned nutrition to the table when rearing their own children.   They often turn to food as a means of reward or to calm a child down or to occupy the child.   In some cases, parents over feed their children because socioeconomic challenges may mean periods of famine.   Parent also over feed children when they don't know better, believing that a clean plate attitude is a virtue.   Studies suggest that parents are often in denial when it comes to their child's weight issues.   Parents may also feel threatened when doctors use terms like overweight and obese, feeling remorse over their own role in the issue.   They also admit that the weight discussion (with older children) is more difficult than talking about sex and drugs.   Mostly, parents feel that their children's relationship with food and nutrition is their business and only their business.

The pediatrician's perspective

Pediatricians are responsible for a good deal of healthy baby and young child care.   They are tasked with measurements to ensure that the child is hitting growth milestones, and vaccine and preventive care. The doctor is also tasked with sick interventions and certainly offering advice, sometimes solicited and sometimes offered in the hopes of helping parents with certain childrearing challenges.   Pediatricians typically have handouts that provide parent education, and very often, basic nutrition recommendations.

A disconnect can happen when a child is showing signs of a higher than healthy BMI, and less likely when the child is on the leaner side.   Conversations about feedings and weight can be difficult, especially if one or both of the parents are overweight, or if the pediatrician initiates a nutrition-based conversation and feels pushback from parents.   Even if the doctor broaches the weight discussion with a sensitive, caring tone, it's an emotionally charged issue, and parents may be offended or simply in total denial.

The school's perspective

Kids spend a significant part of their day in school.   It's reasonable to call it a second home in the sense that as much as half their waking hours are spent there.   Schools have been mandated to serve healthier lunches and to offer healthier vending machine options.   They are also challenged with the lack of physical education time.   Teachers know that kids on processed sugar tend to be unruly and have focusing issues, and once the sugar high wears off, a slump and lack of energy (physical and mental) occurs.   So having kids eat lunches that are based on balanced nutrition is a win-win for everyone.   Teachers also know that overweight kids are typically bullied.   Finally, teachers have to feel challenged if kids who are eating school-provided lunches are following one set of nutrition guidelines, while lunches from home can follow a separate set of rules.   So if cookies come in a brown bag lunch, that's in direct opposition to the lunch guidelines for school lunches prepared and served on school premises.

I'm a parent and a health professional.   I can tell you that I am frankly challenged by the parents who feel attacked when their personal perspectives on nutrition are questioned.   In this story I don't know how often this mother has sent cookies or other treats to school.   She claims she did so in lieu of fruit.   Can we all stop and just process that statement.   Mom is saying, "I needed to provide calories so my daughter would not be hungry."   How do cookies substitute for a piece of fruit?   In my book, they don't, ever.   A fruit will also never measure up, if it's competing with processed sugary food.   Cookies are treats, and should not be daily choices or substitutes.   On the home front a mom can decide when to dispense cookies and other desserts, but they should not pepper a child's school lunch, if the goal is eating healthy, nourishing food.   And yes, I do think it's worthy of a nutrition lesson if parents are making these choices.   We teach kids a host of healthy and safe practices in school, so why wouldn't nutrition be a teachable moment?

If you are a parent really concerned about your child's welfare, then you should be able to separate from your emotions when it comes to basic nutrition information and recommendions.   The school is a community and it requires protocols that take community health into consideration.   Based on this story, today's lesson is not lunch shaming but rather lunch education.

Source: ABC segment

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