Delphine was the first baby I ever knew. I was the baby of my family – I had no younger siblings or cousins, so I didn’t have any exposure to babies when I was a child. In adulthood, I was only the second of my social circle to have a baby. All I knew about babies was that I wanted one.
Fortunately, for me and for Delphine, I had amazing role models: my in-laws. They showed me, by example, how to hold her, how to carry her, talk to her, read to her, and play with her. They showed me how to make every object in the house an interesting artifact to be shown to and discussed with the baby; every object including the ones with text on them. Through my in-laws I learned to show Delphine letters and words, to sound them out, to talk about the shapes of letters and the sounds they represent. She and Cordelia and their baby cousin Charlie were saturated in text ever since they could focus on it.
So I was surprised when I asked a four-year-old of my acquaintance whether her name started with A or H (Anna or Hannah) and she couldn’t tell me. I was more surprised when a friend reported with pride that her son had come home from kindergarten and spelled his name for the first time. How, I thought, do you send a kid off to kindergarten without being able to spell his own name?
It turns out most people don’t have in-laws like mine, or any other role models to teach them how to introduce their children to the world of reading. That’s why I couldn’t agree more with this call to extend schooling to younger children. I don’t mean sitting-in-desks, worksheets-and-homework school, I mean the kind of excellent research-based, play-centred early childhood education that is offered in Ontario’s registered daycares. (At least all the daycares my kids were in.) And I’m not suggesting that kids be taken away from their parents for hours every day; I like the idea of a combined drop-in centre/childcare/kindergarten which is available at low or no cost to whoever chooses to use it, and allows children to participate at the pace that works for them and their family. And I really like the idea of putting such centres into Toronto’s underused schools, instead of closing schools and forcing kids to bus or travel further.
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.
On May 31, Emma Waverman tweeted this:
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:
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.