It's time to eliminate treats in schools: health experts

Treats are not the occasional indulgence that they once were at school and on sports fields.

Downplay food, give children a chance to be more active with extra recess time, games

Birthday cupcakes for the class; pizza and sub days; Halloween and Valentine's Day; and treats to mark the end of term or even the completion of the first 100 days of school. The party never ends for kids at many schools, it seems, and at the core of most celebrations is junk food.

The practice of providing sugary and fat-laden goodies at school to "reward" children or to raise funds has become a "toxic new normal" that has crept in over several decades, says Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, founder of Ottawa's Bariatric Medical Institute, a multidisciplinary nutrition and weight management centre.

"We've done some weird thing where we've decided that food is the answer to everything kid-related and ... that has led to some strange and unhealthy practices — and unfortunately likely has contributed to chronic disease," he says.

Carol Harrison, a Toronto-based registered dietitian, is concerned that filling up on junk leaves less room for the nutritious food children need to grow, stay healthy and feel good all day.

"Treats are not the occasional indulgence that they once were," she says. "Kids today get about a quarter of their calories from things that offer little to no nutritional value, like pop, chocolate, fruit drinks."

Sometimes I would prefer the parents to say, 'I can give you a $50 donation and I prefer to do that rather than have my kid go up and down the street selling a box of chocolates.- Carol Harrison

And the goodies are not only handed out at school.

"When I used to bend blades of grass on sports fields maybe I'd get water, maybe I'd get orange slices, but I certainly wouldn't get rushed at with an ice cream sandwich, but yet that's what my kids face," says Freedhoff, author of "The Diet Fix" and father of three daughters. "Any time they do anything outside of school suddenly somebody's thrusting food at them."

A defence Freedhoff often hears is "but it's just one."

"If it was just one I think that would be a fair argument, but it is constant. Any parent of young children knows it's not just one."

And while others point out a child can refuse to eat the cookies or chips, Harrison says: "It's really hard for the kid to say, 'Well, thank you, but at recess I've got my hummus and carrots. I'm going to wait to eat it then.'

"It's not fair. You're stacking the cards against the kid."

Books for Birthdays

Harrison suggests schools offer guidelines on how to handle celebrations healthfully to support lessons being taught about eating well. Birthday celebrations could be reduced to once a month, says Freedhoff.

But both agree the best idea is to downplay food and give children a chance to be more active with extra recess time, games or crafts.

Cedarvale Community School in Toronto launched Books for Birthdays about five years ago. In lieu of birthday treats, a parent can donate $20 toward the program and a book is purchased for the library in their child's honour.

"The librarian comes to the classroom and reads the story or if it's an older kid they're the first one who gets to take it home and the book is forever in the library," explains Esther Grossman, a parent on the school's advisory council. The initiative raises about $4,000 a year.

"People used to go to the dollar store and buy little trinkets and stuff. Instead, there's a book in the library with their name on it and they're thrilled about it."

'We're selling our kids' health for peanuts'

Many treats in schools are tied to fundraising, such as pizza or hotdog days and sales of chocolate-covered almonds.

"We're selling our kids' health for peanuts and not only are we selling their health for peanuts, we're teaching them it's OK, that it's normal to have junk food, that you should support causes by selling chocolate bars or that it is normal to have pizza every Thursday simply because it's Thursday and that's what happens on Thursdays," says Freedhoff.

"These aren't healthy messages in a society where chronic diet and weight-related diseases are definitely on the rapid rise among our kids — and yet we do it."

At his children's school, they've sold spring bulbs and used a fundraising program called Fundscrip, in which students sell gift cards for food, gas, clothing and hardware retailers where people are already shopping.

"There has also been a saturation of traditional fundraisers, where kids are sent door-to-door hawking goods. Parents are rightly concerned about health issues, donors feel besieged and participants feel like salespeople," says David Nixon, Fundscrip director of marketing.

In the Ontario program Fresh from the Farm, kids raise funds by selling vegetables and fruit. Over the past three years, 300 schools have raised more than $273,000, says Cathy O'Connor, co-ordinator of the program for Dietitians of Canada, which collaborates with the province's agriculture and education ministries along with the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers' Association.

"The farmers are getting access to a market, kids are learning about agrifood and education, and seeing that you don't have to sell chocolate-covered almonds to raise money for schools," says Harrison.

Other fundraisers can involve physical activity such as a swimathon or playathon, or having residents support students tidying the community.

"Sometimes I would prefer the parents to say, 'I can give you a $50 donation and I prefer to do that rather than have my kid go up and down the street selling a box of chocolates,'" says Harrison.


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