Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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A Food Policy for Canada Doesn’t Offer Much to Chew On

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You may have heard that Canada released a food policy last week. Which is great but it seems to be light on specifics and really just a bunch of food-related budget items grouped together and called a policy.

There were a few things in the policy that I was pleased to see: the government’s “intention” to work with the provinces and territories to develop a national school food program. This is long overdue and much needed. A universal  school food program would ensure that children had the nutrition that they need to learn and grow (at least during the school day) and would help alleviate some of the burden on parents who may not have sufficient income or resources to ensure their children have healthy breakfasts and lunches. Unfortunately, I don’t see any money marked for this item and as we head into an election, forgive me if I sound cynical in my “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude. I’m also concerned about who will be involved in developing such a program as we don’t want to fall into the trap of promoting brands or providing unappealing, less than nutritious meals – like we often hear about from our neighbours in the States.

I was happy to see money going toward promoting locally grown and produced foods as well as toward preventing food fraud. However, despite the budget lines devoted to these items sounding huge to me as a dietitian who works with a budget that’s a fraction of these amounts, in the big picture of the government, it’s not very much money at all. They’ve marked $25 million for a buy local produce campaign and $24.4 million to combat food fraud. Contrast this with the $12 million they gave to Loblaw to retrofit their fridges a few months ago.

The part that I’m most disappointed by is the first item mentioned in the policy introduction and that’s their so-called efforts to reduce food insecurity. The example they give is of providing a grant to a food bank so that they can buy more freezers. Are. You. Kidding. Me. Food insecurity is something that I would have loved to have seen this policy address more fulsomely. Unfortunately, they really missed the mark on this important issue. Yes, in some communities and some circumstances, access to sufficient nutritious food is absolutely an issue. However, in the vast majority of cases of Canadians who are experiencing food insecurity the root cause is insufficient income. There are people in every community across the country who cannot afford enough nutritious food for themselves and their families. Continuing to support the food charity model (i.e. food banks) is not the answer. Give the people of Canada a basic income. Empower people to be able to afford to make their own food decisions. Food banks provide an essential emergency service but they were never intended to be permanent solutions to hunger and poverty. Providing more money for food banks only further entrenches them in our food system and society and allows the government to get off easy without making any meaningful effort to end food insecurity.


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Can we take chocolate milk out of politics already?

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You would think that I wouldn’t have anything left to say about chocolate milk by now. I wish that you were right. I would have thought that I wouldn’t either until I read this article the other day about the school nutrition policy in New Brunswick and the current provincial election there. This uninformed inane quote from the leader of the PC party got me all riled up again:

“Brian Gallant is focused on taking chocolate milk away from our kids,” Higgs said in a press release. “I’d rather accomplish the same thing by giving our kids better access to organized sports activities and the character-building experience that come from participating in activities with peers.”

Higgs said in a press release that his government would scrap the nutrition policy entirely because, despite the importance of educating children about good nutrition, “we think helping them participate in activities with their peers is the goal – not legislating what’s on the menu.”

This is the sort of thing that makes me want to tear out my hair. It shows a complete lack of understanding of the issue at hand and sends the entirely wrong message to the public.

The first quote implies that 1. the issue at hand is obesity and 2. that we can compensate for whatever we eat through exercise. These are both patent falsehoods.

To address the first issue: the purpose of school nutrition policies is not to address childhood obesity. The purpose of school nutrition policies is to ensure that children are being provided with nutritious food when they’re at school. Schools should not be making money at the direct cost of the health of their students. In some cases, the only nutritious food that children receive may be when they’re at school. This has nothing to do with weight and everything to do with health, growth, and development.

To address the second issue: as much as we may all wish that it’s true, no amount of exercise can compensate for an unhealthy diet. Playing soccer is not somehow going to miraculously provide a child with vitamins and minerals and essential nutrients that are lacking from their diet. That’s just not how it works. As I’ve mentioned before, healthy eating and physical activity are not two sides of one coin, they are both essential components of a healthy lifestyle.

The message that the would-be premier is sending here is the widespread misconception that health is measured by the scale and that we can make-up for an unhealthy diet by exercising more. This is just not true.

Finally, to address the second quote: we know that education (insofar as that means telling people what to eat, giving them a copy of Canada’s Food Guide, and lecturing them about calories) doesn’t work. However, creating a supportive nutrition environment in which healthy eating is the norm, along with teaching food literacy, can teach children life-long healthy eating habits.


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In the chocolate milk war which side will you take?

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A school in Ottawa decided to no-longer offer chocolate milk to students as part of their milk program. This, I should add, was based on a vote taken at a parent council meeting. Predictably, a bunch of parents, students, and assorted individuals from all over the province are outraged at this infringement on their freedom. This despite the fact that chocolate milk has not been banned from the school, the school is simply no-longer selling it to the kids.

I’m listening to the radio call-in program about this outrage and quite frankly I feel like throwing up my hands, saying eat and drink what ever you damn want, and going off to farm alpacas or something similar that will simultaneously allow me to forsake my current profession and keep contact with human beings at a bare minimum. I mean honestly, what is wrong with people. It is that vital that your child have chocolate milk at school once a week that you’re launching a protest over the removal of chocolate milk from the school milk program but you can’t be assed to pick up a carton of chocolate milk at the store to send to school in your child’s lunch? Do you not normally buy groceries? How do you feed your child outside of school if it’s too much of an ordeal to dump a cup of chocolate milk in a container and pop it in your kid’s lunch box? Lest you think I’m exaggerating, just listen to the first guest on the show. This is literally her argument. If you want your child to have chocolate milk so badly, give it to them yourself. You can let your kid guzzle chocolate milk at home until the cows come home.

Then, there are people arguing that kids should get chocolate milk as part of the school milk program because this may be the only little bit of nutrition they get. That may well be true (and this is incredibly sad) but may I be so bold as to point out that white milk is still available through the program? As my friend Yoni has often argued, suggesting that children be given chocolate milk for the nutrition in milk is like arguing that they be given apple pie for the nutrition in fruit.

I think that many of the people arguing for keeping chocolate milk on-offer in schools have fallen for the marketing hype and genuinely think that chocolate milk is a “health” food. There was one dad who called in and said that his kids drink chocolate milk every day and nothing else sweet, except juice. But he was all for pop being banned in schools because kids get too much sugar. Well, one cup of orange juice has 22 grams of sugar, the same amount of pop has 26 grams, and chocolate milk has 24 grams. That’s not a huge difference. If sugar is your concern, then chocolate milk and pop are on par with each other.

Removing chocolate milk from a school milk program is not denying parents the right to give their children chocolate milk. It’s removing one source in a landscape that is saturated in chocolate milk, pop, juice, sports drinks, and energy drinks. Should any and all foods be available for purchase in schools? Schools do not have an obligation to act as grocery stores. They do not have to sell any and all products that a child might desire. Making white milk the only option (for sale) in schools helps to make the healthy choice the default for students.

There is no good reason for schools to be offering children chocolate milk as part of their milk programs. I applaud this school for taking the initiative to remove the option of chocolate milk from their program. Schools should be places where children learn and that includes learning healthy behaviours, including making healthy food choices. Schools should not be profiting from selling children foods that should not be a regular part of their diets. It’s disgraceful that some parents think that daily delivery of chocolate milk is a greater priority than the actual health and well-being of their children. So much so that they are willing to publicly fight against a decision that was made with the children’s best interest at heart. If they have this much time and passion about school nutrition maybe they can take some of that energy and put it into fighting for a national school lunch program. You know, something that would actually benefit children. Sorry if I sound a little harsh but it frustrates me to no-end that people are so self-centred that they are unwilling to put the well-being of children, both their own, and others ahead of their own uninformed opinions. Cry me a freaking river (of chocolate milk).


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Burger King rules in New Brunswick schools

Burger King image by Mike Mozart on flickr used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Burger King image by Mike Mozart on flickr used under a Creative Commons Licence.

A few weeks ago it hit the news that Burger King has the contract to provide hot lunches for the Anglophone East School District in New Brunswick. Some people were upset that a fast food restaurant is being paid to provide children with lunches. Others defended the program by stating that the foods provided meet the provincial school nutrition policy.

Without knowing exactly what foods are being provided through this program, I would be remiss in dismissing the program as unhealthy. The article simply states that burgers can’t be served more than twice a week, fries aren’t served at all, and they also offer salads and apple sauce. I admit that these claims don’t instil me with much confidence that the offerings are truly healthy, balanced, varied choices. After all, a healthy diet isn’t the absence of the least healthy foods. Offering burgers “only” twice a week isn’t exactly a paradigm of health. Nor is apple sauce and what I’m speculating would be an iceberg lettuce-heavy salad. But that’s just speculation. Perhaps BK is offering a variety of nutritious salad options.

I do think that it’s unfortunate that the decision as to which company receives the RFP to provide schools with lunches is made based on what company can meet the guidelines for the lowest price. Instead of looking at what other hot lunch providers can offer by way of variety and nutrition above and beyond foods permitted, it’s all about the money. Far be it for schools to consider the import of good nutrition on health, behaviour, and the ability of students to learn.

The issue goes beyond the nutritional value of the food being served. Having Burger King provide the hot lunches also allows them to advertise within the schools and build life-long customers out of young children. BK may be providing the food at a lower cost than other providers could but that’s because they’re a huge corporation that sells relatively inexpensive mass-produced food products. They’re also getting more than their money’s worth by being allowed to advertise in schools in this manner, and don’t think for a second that this isn’t exactly why they’re doing it.

In an ideal world, schools would have their own cafeterias with staff and nutritious food prepared for all students at lunch. Unfortunately, our world isn’t ideal. At the very least, school boards could be ensuring that RFPs give preference to local companies rather than large multinational fast food conglomerates.


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Sticky situation: School food bans

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I had mixed feelings as I read the recent CBC coverage of peanut butter substitute bans in PEI schools. Part of me thinks that many children could do with a little more variety than the traditional PBS (peanut butter substitute) and jelly. There are loads of other great lunch ideas out there. Parents have blogs showing school lunches, my friend Dallas (@eatrealbereal) often tweets photos of the amazing school lunches she makes for her daughter, many nutrition websites such as Dietitians of Canada and Eat Right Ontario provide suggestions for school lunches and snacks.

Another part of me argued with that initial part of me. PBS is an affordable non-perishable, quick and easy lunch option for parents. It’s also widely enjoyed by children. In a time and economically strapped world, PBS&J is a handy lunch option to have. Taking that option away limits the possibilities for many parents: both those who don’t have much time and money, and those who have children who are known to bring home uneaten meticulously prepared nutritious lunches.

I get where the schools are coming from. It’s extremely difficult to monitor every lunch and not every parent is going to take the time to label lunches as nut-free. School officials don’t want to be responsible if a child dies on their watch; who can blame them?

Soy is also a common allergen. Is replacing one common allergen with another really the greatest idea? Where do we draw the line though? As allergies become increasingly prevalent in our society we’re going to need a better solution than to outright ban every risky food.