The other day I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, as one does, and I came across a post that made me stop and say out loud, “are you kidding me?” It was a post by a parent looking for some advice and it included a screenshot of the snack list that their child’s summer camp sent around to parents in case their child has food allergies, etc. This is that list:
As a certified health coach, when I look at this list I see:
Sugar, artificial colors, chemicals, trans fats, and more sugar.
Presumably, the children at this camp will be spending their days and doing activities inside and outside. These are not foods that will nourish and support these busy growing bodies. These are foods that are high in calories but very, very low in nutrition. They are deliberately designed to be hyper-palatable (in other words, super duper tasty to our human senses) so we want more. This hyper-palatability and lack of nutrition make it very easy to overeat these foods. Beyond that, more problems have been associated with these food ingredients, including tooth decay, attention problems, hyperactivity problems, hormonal issues, chronic illness, and obesity (for more on the link between food and childhood behavioral issues, check out The NDD Book by Dr. William Sears). These are not foods I want to see fed to children 5 days a week.
That’s not to say that I’m a fanatic – anyone who knows me will tell you that I am the exact opposite of a fanatic and the first one to dig into a bag of salt and vinegar potato chips. Are these foods OK to eat once in a while as a treat? Absolutely. Once in a while is perfectly fine. It’s when these foods are routine that we really have a problem.
What struck me about this list is that there is not a single healthy option on the list – even the “alternative” snacks are questionable (not to mention, what child is going to be OK with having plain Cheerios while their friends are having bright orange Cheetos? Show me one…I’ll wait.)
So if you disagree with this diet as a parent, your options are to send your kid with an alternative snack and a. listen to your child push back about how none of their friends have to eat that and they feel left out, b. your child gets picked on by the other kids for bringing their own healthy snacks (and we know kids tease each other about the most menial things), and c. be labeled the fanatical, overbearing parent.
While I have not reached out to the camp as I don’t know which camp it is, I assume that their argument in favor of these snacks is what we hear time and again about healthy food: budget.
OK. Here’s the thing: you can buy a box of Zebra Cakes for $2.25 and that gives you 10 mini cakes (5 packages of 2). Most kids are going to want both cakes, so you’re only feeding 5 kids with that box. You can buy a 2-lb bag of carrots for $1.50 and feed around, oh say, 10 kids. You can use the cost savings there to buy a jumbo tub of dip (like hummus) for the carrots… The budget argument doesn’t really hold up, huh? To do it even cheaper, you could turn making hummus to dip the carrots into an educational activity for the kids and have them make their own with a can of chickpeas and some oil. (More more information on eating healthy foods on a budget, check out this video of my workshop on it).
The old adage is “healthy habits start at home.” This is absolutely true; but, if your child is then being fed unhealthy foods by their care providers 5 days a week, that can really undermine all of your efforts at home. It’s like you, as a parent, teaching them “please” and “thank-you” at home and then having them taught “now” and “give me” 5 days a week at school.
I know for a fact that most in-school, after-school, and camp programs operate on a very tight budget and I am 100% sympathetic to that. And I understand that the government has massively rolled back any healthy food initiatives for school lunches. This is a huge issue but I don’t think the situation is completely hopeless. My impression is that many of the decision-makers for these programs are going into planning under the assumption that healthy foods are simply unaffordable. But there are many, many ways to get and prepare healthy foods on the cheap.
Do you know of any camp programs with menus like this one? I would love an introduction to try to begin to have conversations with directors about how healthy menu changes can be implemented. Please send me an email at email@example.com.
On a personal note, are you a parent who has been struggling to get your children to eat healthier foods? If so, we should talk. Please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you want to learn more about the effects of manufactured foods on our brain, check out The Hungry Brain by Stephan J. Guyenet.
If you want to learn more about the links between food additives and sugar and childhood attention and behavioral issues, check out the NDD Book by Dr. William Sears.