End-of-year pizza parties, birthday cupcakes and post-quiz candy are often the norm for rewarding high grades or good behavior in school. But a new campaign in the Sacramento City Unified School District is encouraging teachers to find healthier and more creative ways to celebrate success.
The district revised its wellness policy last summer to reflect state and federal guidelines around junk food in schools. Victoria Flores, district director for student support and health service, said some teachers are still coming around on the change.
“We know these kinds of big cultural shifts are going to take some time, but it’s about helping people understand why it’s important,” she said.
The new guidelines ban selling unhealthy snacks during school hours, be it at a bake sale table, on the lunch line, or in a vending machine. They also forbid the use of junk food as a reward or for celebrations.
Luther Burbank High School English teacher Tom McElheney said some staff have a hard time enforcing this in the classroom.
“So many teachers are on board with this policy, but I believe they’re sort of sitting back,” he said. “I know kids are deeply influenced by these foods, and they’re inextricably cultural things; the chips, the taki’s, and it’s difficult to address that.”
This fall, McElheney is hanging flyers asking staff to take a stand against junk food. While students are allowed to bring whatever snacks they want for personal consumption, teachers are supposed to ensure that whatever is being served to the class meets strict federal and state guidelines for calories, saturated fat, sodium, sugar, and trans fat.
Be it an international potluck during a global history lesson or a math problem that involves counting candies, McElheney said many teachers turn to snacks as a learning incentive.
But Flores said that sets children up for an unhealthy relationship with food. She added that sugar highs and lows can make students unfocused.
“When we give our children that big old cupcake, we know it’s actually impeding what we’re trying to do with the learning process,” she said.
Nearly one in three California children are obese, according to the Data Resource Center for Child and Adolescent Health. The California Department of Public Health reports obesity rates are higher for African American and Latino children. And that has a big effect later in life – weight-related chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease are more common in communities of color.
Marissa Munzing, healthy schools program director for the Sacramento nonprofit Health Education Council, said children in certain zip codes are often exposed to junk foods at home because there’s a lack of grocery stores selling healthy items in those areas.
Her organization wants both parents and teachers to get more creative about incentives. They helped make a flyer for the school district encouraging colorful pencils, fun accessories, or extra activity time as a way to motivate students.
“There are a lot of options that are actually cheaper and healthier, that are just, if not more, fun than enjoying a cupcake on your birthday.”
McElheney said teachers — especially those teaching in low-income schools — should be thinking about students’ wellness in the long run, not just what makes them happy in the moment.
“Even though a student may be attending a poor school, even though his life expectancy is lower because of that zip code, he’s still worth more than the junk food he’s eating,” he said. “Though the foods make them feel good temporarily, though they are hyperpalatable ... these foods aren’t going to give them the life that they could have.”
Not all food is banned from the classroom under the new rules. Teachers can serve fruits and vegetables at celebrations, as well as healthy dips such as hummus and guacamole. Flores said there are even policy-compliant versions of favorites such as pizza and chips.
Handout on SCUSD's Updated Wellness Policy: