Monday, November 5, 2012

Politics is as personal as ever, day 18: Stop Diabeating Our Kids!

          Our daughter, Hot Shot, had Mrs. Fantastic for second grade.  She was incredible.  Not inspirational necessarily, or over-the-top creative, or academically innovative.  But she was effective.  Astonishingly effective.  Thirty students.  City school.  Kids who didn't know the sounds associated with each letter, and kids who could read Ramona, cover to cover in three hours.  And let me tell you, everything in the room was designed to promote maximum effectiveness.  Behavior communication folders filled out and signed everyday.  Personalized homework packets distributed and commented on weekly.  Reading library displayed and cataloged by level, subject, and genre.  Monthly school supplies for students with good behavior.  Quarterly parties for those who completed their homework every week.  When my partner volunteered in the classroom she was greeted with a print out of each student she was to tutor and what each needed to review.  This teacher used systems that work.
          And one of her most effective systems was "brain food."  As Hot Shot explains while students were working at their desks, or in groups, Mrs. Fantastic would walk around the room and slip Skittles to those students who were engaged.  "Keeps the brain working," Mrs. Fantastic would say.  Hot Shot loved this.  There aren't all that many candies she likes, but Skittles is one of them.  "How did Mrs. Fantastic know just what to pick?"
          We, of course, were not as crazy about this highly effective strategy as Hot Shot and Mrs. Fantastic were.  Mrs. Fantastic we loved.  Skittles not so much.  But to be fair, candy-as-behavior-incentive is a widely-used and entirely accepted norm.  But it doesn't take much common sense to understand that this practice, while effective, has no place in our schools.  And here's where I get to use my all time favorite Urban Dictionary entry: Stop diabeating our kids!
          The student population at our daughter's school is almost entirely African American.  And  African American elementary school age kids are almost twice as likely to be obese are their White counterparts.  And this has exponential ramifications.  Because African American adults are twice as likely to have been diagnosed with diabetes than their White counterparts.  And then those with diabetes are twice as likely to die from it.  So yes, the constant candy rewards may keep kids focused on their schoolwork.  But at tremendous cost.
          Well, Hot Shot is in third grade now, with another truly remarkable set of teachers, and guess what the new policy is regarding snacks in school.  "Healthy Snacks Only.  No cupcakes or cookies for parties.  Birthday treats must be healthy treats approved prior to bringing in to school.  There will be no exception.  No candy treats passed out to students."  And it's not just in my daughter's school.  This is a new citywide policy: no more bribing children with prizes that will eventually kill them.
          But wait, there's more.  Last year the Columbus City Schools made a bold change in vending machines, opting to eliminate all soft drinks, sports drinks, juices, and flavored waters, in favor of a one-beverage-fits-all policy.  Water.  That's it.  In every machine.  And there won't be as many Snickers bars at the ready.  During the 2011-12 school year, the City Schools reduced the number of "low-nutrient" snacks in vending machines to only 15% of those choices offered, while they increased low-fat and nutrient-rich snacks to 30% of the options.  During this school year and next, the empty-calorie snacks are scheduled to be phased out completely and replaced by a more nutritious spectrum.  This kind of move is rare among urban school districts, in part because it will amount to a decrease in revenue, at least initially, while students adjust their taste buds.  But hot damn, if this City isn't willing to take a cut in revenue when it means saving our kids lives.
          So what, you may ask, does all this have to do with the Obama Administration?  Well, nothing exactly.  Not anything completely objective and provable anyway.  Except that healthy living, including developing nutritious eating habits, has been a hallmark of the Obama family, as well as  Obama policy.  The Obamas have used their four-year moment of heightened visibility to intentionally model healthy living.  Michelle Obama's Let's Move initiative is helping families, schools, and communities raise "a healthier generation of kids," promoting physical activity and whole foods.  And finally, this fall, the Obama Administration succeeded in passing the first major change to School Breakfast and School Lunch in 15 years.  You may have heard the folks at Fox News complaining about this government takeover of our kids' food options, but here's the deal.  Effective immediately, our kids get more (and a wider variety) of fresh fruits and vegetables everyday.  Half of their grains are now whole grains.  Only skim and low-fat milk will be offered.  And, there are no trans fats allowed on the premises.  But that's not all, by next year all grains served in school will be whole grains.  And over the course of the next ten years the salt content of our kids' food will be gradually reduced so that by 2022 they will be served 25% less sodium in their school breakfasts and 53% (!) less sodium in their lunches.
          Now you may have heard there are also new caloric limits on school meals based on the USDA guidelines for each age group.  And you may have heard complaints that kids aren't getting enough food.  That they are coming away from lunch hungry.  I've heard this both in the media and from a couple parents of athletes.  I'm not particularly ready to weigh in on this part of the issue yet.  But I will say this.  It's not a surprise to me that kids don't "feel full" of their new lunches.  Partly because it takes time to get used to eating foods you aren't usually offered.  And partly because a plate of chard and  baked chicken breast over brown rice feels different in the belly than a big slice of extra-cheese pizza.
          So these are bold moves made by the Obamas.  Nutrition and healthy living has been their own personal is political message to a nation struggling with obesity and diabetes.  And it's not always met with resounding applause.  Because we like the taste of french fries.  And the feeling of a stomach full of pasta slathered in I-can't-believe-it's-full-of-trans-fat and salt.  But they've done it anyway, because it's the right thing to do.  And I believe that in making these often unpopular stands, they are also making room for city councils and school boards to implement the same kinds of bold decisions.
          So Hot Shot is having a really wonderful year in third grade.  And as hard as it is to believe, she's getting by without anyone slipping her a Skittle every couple of minutes.  She's still embarrassed to open the thermos of fresh vegetable soup I put in her lunch box, because "Mom, don't you know, no one eats vegetable soup for lunch?!"
          But she doesn't know what I know.  She doesn't know what's coming down the pike.  "You just wait," I tell her.  "You just wait."


  1. Hi,
    I just found your post and look forward to exploring a little more. I used to live in Columbus, in the 70s, up in the North end.
    Good luck to you and yours,

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.