The Nutrition Police Are Coming to Your Bake Sale

It has come to my attention that the Ontario government has been so kind as to provide us with a cookbook  with “healthy” recipes for baked goods, so our children don’t have to suffer the ignominy of purchasing delicious, decadent treats at school bake sales.

The cookbook features such Seinfeldian delights as brownies made with mashed black beans, and “vanilla squares”: Rice Krispie squares, minus the Rice Krispies, plus All-Bran. Because what kid doesn’t enjoy a delicious square of Super Colon Blow ‘n Marshmallows?

When I ranted about this to Blake his first response was, “at least it’s not mandatory.” Actually, the cookbook goes hand in hand with Ontario’s new School Food and Beverage Policy, which specifies that 80% or greater of food sold at any given school event should meet certain criteria: no more than 5 grams of fat per serving, no more than 2 grams of saturated fat per serving, and at least 2 grams of fibre per serving.

Now, I have nothing against healthy eating, but this is ridiculous.

First of all, we’re talking about bake sales here. Bake sales. Bake sales are special occasions, a time for indulgence. Bake sale food does not make up a significant proportion of anyone’s diet. No kid ever got fat eating food from bake sales.

Second, this cookbook, this whole policy, is insulting and patronising.  I’m no liberatarian, but this is literally a nanny state at work. The government is telling us, in very specific and precise terms, what we should feed our children.  Not suggesting, not educating, but decreeing.

Who provides the food for bake sales? Parents. Not corporations or school boards, who might for reasons of profit or expedience not take all childrens’ needs into account, but the parents of the very same children who are buying and eating the food. If we, the parents, thought bake sale food was damaging our childrens health, we would have very straightforward recourse: we would provide different food. No-one sends steak tartar or fugu to bake sales because that would be dangerous. Cupcakes and brownies are not dangerous. They do not need to be regulated.

The final irony is that “the standards do not apply to food and beverages that are offered in schools to students at no cost”. So school meal programs for children who come to school hungry, the programs which are quite likely to furnish a significant proportion of those children’s daily nutrition, are, unfathomably, not governed by these regulations. Good grief.

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Redistribution of Wealth

On May 31, Emma Waverman tweeted this:

My friend is a Principal in a underserviced Toronto jr school. She needs $2000 to FEED her students for the rest of the year. Anyone?Tue May 31 19:27:45 via UberSocial

And I thought something like, “Holy shit, @2000?” I thought, “Holy shit, $2000?” because at our school summer fair we raised $1300. At the bake sale table. Never mind the barbeque and the silent auction and the bouncy castle and the games, we raised 65% of the money Emma’s friend needs to feed her school’s kids for a month, selling brownies and cupcakes for three hours.

It seemed a little ridiculous not to try to help. So I sent email to our School Council president and treasurer, and to the principal, asking if we could help. The response was overwhelmingly positive: the treasurer said we could give some money and also ask the other schools in our area to donate; the principal suggested setting up a donating jar at the Freezie Friday table; and in her typical no-bullshit style, the president of the school council dropped $500 of her own money on the table. Emails flew back and forth, working out the logistics, and this rainy morning I woke up to this tweet:

Thanks to @amyrhoda and her school’s parent council. The kids at my friend’s school have enough to eat for the rest of the school year. #wowTue Jun 07 03:34:36 via HootSuite

I’m not sure exactly what amount of money came from which source, but we did it.

But there’s a catch. Our next School Council meeting is on June 14, which means we did this without consulting the council. Now, our contribution was (as far as I know) only $500, and we came up with a plan to cover it if the council retroactively refuses to donate this money, so technically it’s fine. But I’m pretty sad that we have to even make a contingency plan. “In case of ungenerousness, break glass.”

The Ontario school funding formula is broken (thanks to Mike Harris); schools just don’t get the money they need. To make up the difference, families in some schools have stepped in with fundraising efforts. But a lot of schools don’t have access to the kind of fundraising expertise, connections, or cash that others do, creating a two-tier public education system where the rich get richer and the poor stay hungry. Some “have” school councils quietly contribute to “have not” schools, but despite repeated efforts on my part and the part of other parents, we have been unable to convince our school council to do the same.

I don’t think it’s because we’re fundamentally ungenerous. The fact is, we’re not a rich neighbourhood in the sense that Forest Hill and Rosedale are rich. Yes, we have a lot of money, but we work damn hard for it–we’re bankers and lawyers (and software developers), not idle heirs and socialites. So we do tend to hold on to our money. But I believe if we (the school council) only managed to frame the idea of giving properly, we could get the rest to agree to it.

I think funding something specific and finite, like a breakfast program for a particular school, would be simple and appealing enough to convince parents to part with a little bit of our money. It’s much more satisfying to contribute to something you can picture than something nebulous; that’s why the charity appeals on TV always feature one specific kid (or dog).

So I don’t honestly expect that we’ll be retroactively refused that meal program money, although we might (fairly enough) be questioned as to whether we intend to quietly and without consultation give away any more of our money. That will be a good time to say, “No, but let’s plan to give a specific amount to a particular need, so we can share the wealth in a structured manner.” Maybe this time they’ll go for it.

There, but for the grace of God, go I.

There was an article today on parentcentral.ca about children dying when they’re left in hot cars. It’s a horrible thing to contemplate, but the article is interesting because it talks about the number of children who were left because their parents forgot they were there:

The parents of more than half of almost 500 children who died from being left in hot cars from 1998 to 2010 simply forgot their kids were in the vehicles, experts report.

and about the fact that people think it could not happen to them, following this train of thought:

Forgetting your child is something only a bad parent would do. I am not a bad parent. Therefore I would never forget my child.

This is, perhaps, a comforting line of thought, but it’s  flawed. An empty rear-facing car seat looks identical, from the driver’s seat, to a rear-facing car seat with a sleeping baby in it. If you’re outside of your usual routine, tired, sick, or distracted, it would be quite possible—unlikely, to be sure, but possible—to walk away from the car believing that your child is safe at daycare. Maybe you’re not the usual dropper-off, maybe you thought you dropped her off but actually didn’t, maybe when you pulled out of the driveway you immediately started thinking about that big sales call or review meeting and were already in work-mode before you hit the highway. It can happen to anyone, not just flaky people, or stupid people, or irresponsible people. Just because a mistake is tragic and ugly and hard to think about, doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

The above line of thought is not just flawed, though, it leads to a terrible consequence: neglecting to provide reminders to yourself that your child is in the car. If you think this only happens to bad parents, and you’re not a bad parent, then why remind yourself not to do it? But think how simple it would be to get in the habit of throwing your purse or cellphone on the back seat. You retrieve your purse, you remember your baby (who isn’t there, of course, because it hardly ever happens) and voila, it’s all good. Bad thing (that would never happen to you, of course) averted.

Launching…

Shuttle LaunchTen days ago Greg Wilson and I released The Architecture of Open Source Applications. It seems to be quite well-received and people are blogging about it. Since I thoroughly enjoyed the process of taking a pile (a well-organized pile, but a pile none-the-less) of content in disparate formats, with associated images, and making it into an actual flesh-and-blood book (and I also learned a ton of things) I’ve decided to hang out my shingle as a freelance book production consultant and editor. I’m looking forward to midwifing lots of great projects!