Up until my oldest started kindergarten, he had limited exposure to refined sugar. We were an organic, homemade kind of family that consciously avoided sugar, artificial colors, gluten, and pasteurized dairy.
Most of our friends ate how we did and if we went somewhere serving food we couldn’t eat, I checked beforehand to see what we could bring. No matter what food we ate, or didn’t eat, I think its important to feel included; especially for kids.
If the host was serving cupcakes with red frosting, I made gluten/sugar-free cupcakes with frosting dyed with red beet powder. This is how we rolled. Yes, I’m in the kitchen more than most parents, yet what my children eat matters to me, to their health, to the world around them.
Bright Blue Tongue
This “norm” drastically changed on my son’s first day of kindergarten. I excitedly greeted my son as he jumped off the bus; right away noticing his bright blue tongue from a lollipop he’d been given at school. My concern grew with each passing day. First a blue tongue, then red lips (from an artificial colored cherry popsicle), then balls of aluminum in his jacket pocket from Hershey kisses that he’d gotten from his gym teacher for patiently standing in line. Then the day he came home with a wild look in his eyes and orange fingertips from a bag of Cheetos he got from a teacher who felt bad for the “healthy kid”.
For the first time in his life, my son was being exposed to sugar; whether as a reward or for fun.
Hyper & Detached
Before my very eyes, my once wholesome, sugar-free kid turned into a hyper, detached kid with sugar cravings. For his first 5 years, I’d tried hard to keep him away from such a stimulating, artificial world and I felt angry that a school setting could be so careless with a child’s health and well-being. That such an educational learning environment could have such loose boundaries around refined sugar; which is essentially a strong stimulant, a drug.
Up until now, I’d thought keeping my kids off gluten and pasteurized dairy was tough. Well, that my friends is nothing compared to keeping them off (and away) from refined sugar and artificial dye (i.e. red #40, yellow #5) in a public school setting.
I sent my son with a wholesome lunchbox with thermoses, containers, and a cloth napkin to boot. Yet, he returned with his food untouched and a belly of junk food.
At first, I didn’t say anything. I watched him come home with colors on his tongue and lips and a ‘hyperactivity’ that was not my son. One evening we attended a performance at his school and noticed a teacher giving each child a Hershey kiss for standing in line straight and quiet. I already knew that his class teacher kept a desk drawer filled with bite-sized m&m packets and kit-kat bars as rewards for the kids. Fridays was ‘movie day’ where they watched a movie and each child got microwaved butter popcorn and kool-aid.
Learning to Communicate
I struggled with how to communicated to school staff about NOT giving sugar to my son and NOT making him feel different or excluded when it came to engaging in food-related activities with his peers. I formed a group of like-minded parents to explore ways to handle the amount of sugar being offered in a school setting. I met with individual teachers, the cafeteria manager, and the principal. I learned to communicate about a matter that was not only important for my son, but also other kids who had dietary restrictions (imposed by family values or health reasons). I wanted all kids to feel included no matter what kind of food was being served.
I asked “why sugar is served in a learning environment?”; a food known to cause health issues (i.e. ADHD, diabetes). Though we had many a conversation, the changes I hoped to see put in place were not made. Other parents I’d been meeting with ended up pulling their kids from the system to home-school or attend alternative education.
Most of the teachers I met were conventional in their way of thinking (and eating). I am certain they thought I was a new-age hippy or controlling parent, denying children the ‘good stuff’. Throughout each conversation, I stood strong and moved with my instincts. I wasn’t okay with my child being fed sugar at school. At the very least I wanted a system in place so that parents like myself could know when a sugary item was going to be handed out so our child would have a sugar-free alternative of our choice.
Meanwhile, my son kept coming home full of sugar from what felt to be an endless stream of birthdays, holidays, and rewards. If I knew about an event ahead of time I’d send him with a cupcake or treat that mimicked what was being served. More often though, I never knew what was happening when.
I watched my son become more hyper by the day and turn up his nose at the naturally sweetened desserts he’d always loved. I knew something had to change for me to be okay with him going to school. So, I came up with the idea of a Treat Box; basically a Tupperware container filled with non-perishable treats that can be offered to choose from at a school celebration.
See here for what I put inside our treat boxes.
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May all bellies be happy!