At last Thursday’s Board meeting staff presented a revised draft “wellness” policy. What’s “wellness”? It’s essentially the notion that schools and education should play a role in teaching students about how to live a healthy life. Among other things it touches on nutrition. A committee of parents, educators and a couple of trustees had done quite a bit of work coming up with recommendations in this area over the last year, which informed the way staff drafted the policy. As it turned out, however, at least some significant parts of the draft policy were not supported by a majority of the Board, including me.
The discussion about the nutritional aspects of the proposed policy may well have been the most heated I have ever seen in my ten-plus years on the Board, with trustees opposed to sections of the draft policy being charged with being willing to endanger students by not supporting the draft policy as written. In the end I think more light than heat was generated, which will hopefully make staff’s redrafting effort more productive.
The rest of this post is an edited version of an email I sent to Craig Baker, our superintendent, after the meeting, outlining some thoughts on how I hope the District will proceed in developing a wellness policy.
I’ve been thinking about the discussion we had last Thursday regarding the draft wellness policy. I don’t have a specific, coherent approach to offer as an alternative, but I wanted to share some ideas that may be useful to staff as you take the next steps in this area.
I was rather taken aback by the vehemence of those pushing a strict, restrictive policy approach (e.g., essentially banning certain snack foods from class celebrations). Contrary to charges leveled in the meeting, I don’t believe I am countenancing poisoning children when I want to retain for students, teachers and parents the right to have cupcakes or cake in the course of a classroom celebration. To me this is an issue about balancing rights, and minimizing governmental interference (by the District, in this case) with the rights of families and individuals to make their own decisions on matters that affect themselves. However, the strong assertions did get me thinking about some aspects of the wellness policy that I’m not sure are well-addressed.
Everyone knows about nut allergies. But there are other medical conditions which can make eating “normal” snacks problematic. Those include diabetes and celiac disease, among others. It seems to me our overriding goal ought to be to keep students safe, with educating them about the importance of good nutrition a close second.
We could try to come up with a list of recommended foods that won’t cause problems for any child. But that puts staff in the position of having to understand and keep track of every possible food-sensitive medical condition in the District. It also would unnecessarily penalize classes which don’t include students with particular conditions. That same argument applies, by the way, to trying to define “excessive” consumption of snacks. What’s excessive to me isn’t necessarily excessive to someone else, because metabolisms and lifestyles (e.g., the amount of physical activity being pursued ) differ.
I think a better way to do this is to set things up so that parents and teachers will work together, on a class-by-class basis, to address the issue of what are appropriate “celebration” foods. Those discussions should also include talking about alternative ways of celebrating events that don’t involve any food at all. The District could provide a list of suggestions, and it should most definitely point out foods that can be medically “dangerous” to students with certain conditions, but the main goal of policy and practice would be to get parents and teachers to come together on what works for them. I believe such an approach will do a better job of preserving the personal freedom I find so important while protecting kids.
Such an approach dovetails nicely with something else I’d like to see come out of this discussion: creating a nutrition/wellness education strand in our curriculum. To be blunt, and not meaning anything other than constructive criticism, I believe the District has fallen short in this area. Carrie’s (nb: Trustee Carrie Du Bois) statement that her son’s teacher never provided any guidance to parents regarding birthday celebrations and/or celebration foods is, I suspect, the District norm. I don’t fault the teacher for that failure, by the way, because I see it as a sign that we have not made nutrition and wellness important parts of what we expect students to master as they grow through the District. We should do that, and our policies should be drafted with that goal in mind.
The whole area of nutrition and wellness education strikes me as a wonderful opportunity to bring the community – parents, teachers, and students – together. It’s a great topic for parent ed, and it’s a great topic for teaching children about what it means to have the ability to choose in a free society (i.e., being able to make choices is a large part of what it means to be free, but it carries with it the responsibility to choose wisely). It’s also a great topic to talk about the struggle a free society has in balancing individual choice with the impact those choices have on others. The more I think about it, the more I think wellness and nutrition education can serve as a framework for talking about a lot of very important issues in a way that even a young child could be lead to grasp, while also teaching them the specifics of how to lead a healthier life.
As you know from Thursday’s discussion, I won’t support a policy approach in this area that unnecessarily treads on individual freedom. That “unnecessarily” modifier is important. We don’t allow people to drive as fast as they want on our roads, even though some drivers and some vehicles could do so safely. That’s because granting those individuals the right to express their freedom in that way places other people’s freedoms, and lives, in unavoidable danger. But that doesn’t apply to food or drink, because you can always choose not to eat or drink something.
I reject Seth’s argument that we must substitute policy for thinking as regards snacks at school because our students are too young to be able to make informed choices. The fact of the matter is that our students, even the youngest, make these kinds of choices for themselves all the time. Educating them on how to make better choices is far more important than preventing them from making choices at school because they only spend part of their lives at school. My experience as a parent taught me that, particularly in the case of snacks, I cannot prevent my children from choosing to eat them. They’re too prevalent. What I must do is teach them why some consumption choices are better than others, challenge them when they make poor choices, and hold them accountable for the choices they make. I think schools can play an important role helping parents teach this information.
The fact that a given choice might be difficult for one person (e.g., a person who gains weight easily, like me) and easy for another (e.g., a person whose metabolism burns up calories, like my son’s) is part of life. Dealing with the potential for personal frustration (“why can’t I do X when Y does it?”) is a consequence of our choosing to build a society which seeks to maximize individual liberty. As a public agency charged with, among many other things :), educating youngsters to succeed in such a society we should be teaching what it means to be free, and individually responsible.