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Color me annoyed

I’m working with my daughter’s school on a project about local food, so Wednesday I stopped in for a little show-and-tell about the sort of food that grows in New York vs. elsewhere. (Apples and grapes, natch. Pineapples and mangoes, nada.) I’ll admit I had visions of doing my own Jamie Oliver-style Q&A, complete with a dramatic reveal and confused kids. But thankfully my 5- and 6-year-olds did know their fruits and veggies. Impressively so.

I got there right as the kids were finishing lunch and munching birthday popsicles brought in by one of the boys in my daughter’s class. I’m not unreasonable. I allow the occasional brightly colored junk even if I cringe the whole time and then spend the rest of the day peeling my daughter off the ceiling. Balance, right?

This time, though, I wasn’t feeling generous. Maybe because of the irony — um, fruit and veggie talk — or maybe because I’d only last week written a blog post on artificial colors. Or maybe because the kids (mine top of the list) were bouncy during the talk. (Knowledgeable, but bouncy.) Whatever the reason, it made me cranky. So later, at home after the presentation, I asked my daughter why she’d chosen the green popsicle, the only one of the choices that was obviously artificially colored. (The popsicles were made partly with fruit juice and fruit, but apparently some varieties still needed a chemical color boost.) 

Turns out she’d been handed the popsicle by the birthday boy, and one of the (well-meaning) teachers had told the kids, “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.” So Tess didn’t ask for one of the (naturally colored) berry flavors that she would have preferred anyway. “And Mama,” she added, “I didn’t know it had food dye in it.”

That’s when deja vu hit. We’d had a similar incident last summer, only then the culprit was a blue ice cream bunny. Then, like now, I’d reached my limit. And then, like now, I’d written about it. So I’m going to pull out that piece (originally published in one of my regular columns) and reprint it here. And tonight I’m going to watch the newest episode of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution and try not to get too riled. We’ve got it pretty good by comparison, but the collective stakes are high.

Blue in the Face: Trying to make sense of a junk-food world

Many of us preach moderation when it comes to kids and junk food. My husband and I chose another buzzword: education. By teaching our kindergartner about nutrition and how food affects our bodies — by giving her tools to make good choices rather than simply making them for her — we hoped she’d carry the lessons through to adulthood. We figured we couldn’t easily change the world we live in, but we could change the way we live in it.

Until the blue bunny incident. Then I realized that it’s got to be bigger than us.

I’d read a New York Times article about an anti-junk food mom in Manhattan who, among other things, e-mailed shrill missives to school board members and required her children to deposit school-provided junk food into a plastic container (for her after-school accounting, one assumes). I had mixed feelings. This mom was so right about our country’s epidemic of childhood obesity and diabetes, and about how a deluge of sugar, trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup, and artificial colors and flavors has no place in learning environments. But her methods were so wrong.

So I was feeling pretty good about my own low-key crusade. Our daughter didn’t have sugar until nearly preschool. Ditto chips and all that. And we’d been offering healthful foods right along, substituting our own snacks for ones provided in school and at kid activities. But we’d done all this quietly, never telling anyone else how to raise their children, never harassing school officials.

The closest I’d come was sending a carefully worded e-mail to the director of a day camp my daughter had attended. I suggested there were better alternatives to the neon-hued ice pops the kids were getting every afternoon. The director countered that this was a tradition and that kids deserve special treats on hot days (akin to the commenter on the New York Times article who wrote that giving kids cake and popsicles is a “God-given right”).

I pushed back with a little did-you-know about how certain ingredients (like food dyes, a known stimulant for hyperactivity) affect kids’ health and behavior. But in the end I conceded that we could just as easily supply our own whole-fruit popsicles next year. End of story. No drama. No picketing outside the camp.

But then I picked my daughter up from a different day camp three weeks later. And there was the blue bunny.

She and I had talked that morning about the ice cream truck. It was an end-of-week ritual at this camp, and I wanted her to be able to enjoy it with everybody else. It’s the same reason we’re fine with cake at birthday parties and candy on Halloween and Easter. Plus there’s no quicker way to create a kid with food issues than to deny them simple sugary pleasures.

But here’s where that education thing comes in. My daughter knows that food dye is one of the things we try hard to avoid. And it’s generally easy, because though color might dazzle her at first, one bite usually makes her realize that just because something is pretty doesn’t mean it tastes good. So I asked her to pick an ice cream treat that wasn’t obviously colored. And I thought we were good.

But I forgot something. She’s 5. And bunny-shaped ice cream bars are hard to resist.

The scene: I get out of my car and hear “Mommy!” I turn, smiling. Then I’m frowning, trying to figure out what’s all over her face. Blue. It’s blue. “Did they just finish painting or something?” I’m wondering. Then there’s excited talk of blue ice cream bunnies with gumball eyes. I feel my blood pressure rise.

“What happened to no color?” I manage to ask, trying to keep my cool. “I forgot, Mommy,” says my blue-streaked daughter, already doing that fidgety food-dye dance. “I just really wanted the bunny!”

Well of course she did. What kid wouldn’t? So then I got mad. Not at her, but at the camp. At the ice cream truck. At the system, whatever that is. Why do we even have food like this available? It’s not even technically food, at least by certain definitions. But it’s everywhere in our schools, our camps, our kids’ sporting activities.

When she was tiny, I’d been fine handling these affronts. Packing more healthful snacks for preschool? No problem. Substituting almonds and whole-grain graham crackers for the lollipops handed out after her sports class? OK. Asking her to drink water instead of sugary drinks at camp? Sure.

We explained all this to her, letting her know it was OK to make choices different from other kids and hoping we were laying the foundation for when she’d be making choices on her own — like when the ice cream truck pulls into camp. But I was coming around to the opinion that our singular efforts weren’t enough.

Our daughter actually makes pretty smart food choices and has developed a palate that favors unprocessed food, so it seems to be paying off. But what about the kids whose parents don’t have time to sort this out? The ultimate responsibility for a child’s health and well-being lies with parents, but schools and other stewards of childhood have a responsibility, too, to educate themselves and read labels and take the time to offer options that are good and good for you.

When Mark Bittman, author of “Food Matters,” spoke at an event here in July, someone in the audience asked how we can ensure that children grow up to make smart food choices. Kids aren’t born craving Pop-Tarts and Cheez Doodles, Bittman pointed out. Those are learned habits, acquired tastes.

But they can be unlearned, too. Even in school.

The addendum to this story is that the second summer camp — which is run by the school my daughter now attends — has asked me for ideas not only for healthy snacks for this year, but also for recipes the kids can cook each week. For now, though, the ice cream truck stays.

Am I alone in getting worked up about this stuff? What pushes your buttons?

Update as of April 26: This week I’m entering this post in the Get the Junk Out blog carnival. Check out the link for other posts about food additives. Also see my April 2 post on artificial colors. (It’s about using Easter egg dyes to teach kids the difference between natural and artificial colors, but there’s also a lot of background information about dyes.) 

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{ 22 comments… add one }

  • Karen Bannan April 9, 2010, 6:00 pm

    We have had the same issues since my little one was, well, really little. It’s very frustrating when other moms look at you like you’re the crazy one as you hand your child a healthy alternative.

    Keep up the good fight, Christina.

  • Frugal Kiwi April 9, 2010, 6:09 pm

    I don’t do well with food dyes. I was in my twenties before I figured it out. Red velvet cake, red Chinese BBQ pork and other super red foods are the worst culprits for me. But we can’t expect children to figure that sort of thing out. Sadly, we can’t depend on manufacturer’s to make responsible choices. If one company doesn’t make blue bunny ice cream, another will.

  • Dana Cardona April 9, 2010, 9:04 pm

    What pushes my buttons:
    Birthday cake and ice cream… and the drink served:
    I happen to think cake and ice cream is plenty of sugar. ;P
    I don’t care if it’s organic apple juice made from local apples (increasingly rare… most apple juice now comes from China where there are few if any environmental regulations, so I’m going to assume the juice is full of pesticides and what not, not to mention the fossil fuel that was burned getting it here… and it’s not like there’s an apple shortage in NY State!!!); cake and ice cream goes nicely with good old H2O in my book.

    • Christina April 10, 2010, 3:56 pm

      Juice! Indeed. For birthday parties, we always get a big jug of water with a spigot so kids can serve themselves. (Cuts down on waste, too.)

  • Kelly April 10, 2010, 8:55 pm

    I recently began following your blog. I have had struggles with preschool menu and supply substitutes sometimes. I work full time and have 2 kids, so it is really hard to be consistent. But I try. I have been one to confront the preschool administration at times. This summer will be a new experience, with day camp for my oldest daughter, and I’m already fearful of what is to come, but I want her to have a fun summer before she starts Kindergarten. Once there, I will be able to control much more.

    Thanks for sharing so much!

    • Christina April 11, 2010, 10:35 pm

      Welcome, Kelly. You might have seen another post in which I wrote that we supplied our own snacks through two years of preschool. That worked very well for us. But last summer was the first time we did all-day summer camp, and that made me nervous about food all over again. Turned out, though, that I needn’t have worried (except for the neon ice pops and blue bunny).

      The first camp’s director was pretty clueless when I questioned her about the ice pops (not only about the food dye, but also when I noted the irony of an active outdoor camp claiming to replenish kids’ energy with HFCS-laden crud). So I knew I wasn’t going to gain an ally there for future reform. (As it turns out, we’re not going back to that camp, though not because of the food.)

      But the second camp director was incredibly responsive and, as you saw above, open to suggestions. Yes, the ice cream truck stays, but I’ll deal.

  • Sarah April 12, 2010, 2:35 pm

    I think the thing that pushes my buttons is… me. I’m a Johnny-come-lately to this whole food awareness business and I’m frustrated by my lack of knowledge in this area until now. The things I’ve learned since I began this little project of mine have me absolutely floored and I can’t believe I’ve been putting these things in my body for so long without question. And what’s worse: in my daughter’s body. She’s just turned three and while she’s no junk food junkie, she’s a little more addicted to the society-prescribed “toddler food” than I would like. I’m frustrated that I didn’t educate myself before she was born so that I could have been making different decisions for her along the way. Now I feel like I’m having to break habits and introduce new ones, instead of having instilled them all along. And there’s no arbitraility pickier creature about food than a human toddler. One day veggies are “yuck” and the next day she can’t get enough.

    I do feel lucky, though, that she is only three and that’s plenty of time to begin discussions about food and artificial colorings and reading labels. I’ve been having her cook with me lately and as she pulls the chair to the counter she inevitably says, “Yay, broccoli!” so I’m getting somewhere. I just wish I had started her on this path rather than joining it now.

    I’m going to have to do some thinking about the whole lunch and snacks at daycare thing. Our daycare lady is Sri Lankan and used to feed the kids her own cooking every day. She’s gotten away from that, though, as her business has grown and now the standard lunch is corndogs or mac and cheese. I need to have a conversation with her about what the kiddos are eating, but I’m going to have to tread carefully.

    • Christina April 12, 2010, 8:56 pm

      Sarah, a lot of us have had that WTH moment. But don’t look back (and definitely do not beat yourself up!). Just look forward and think about all the positive things you’re doing now. Be sure to check out my next post (going up tomorrow morning). It contains some resources that might help your daughter in that transition. Your daycare situation does sound tricky, given that you have a solo provider. But since she used to cook herself, one option might be to tell her how nice that was and how much you miss it (or something like that). Maybe that could be the opening you need. Good luck, and let us know how it goes.

  • Ryan Platte April 12, 2010, 3:55 pm

    OK, this post clarifies my own thinking about your earlier posts about talking with children. Folks are agape when they see our line of 5 boys all politely refusing refined-sugar products (well, the three that have reached the age of four, that is!). But they do it because it’s something we talk about in detail at home; they believe it’s bad for them and that we are giving them something better.

    The fact that several members of our family have suffered badly from illnesses that have improved as our mineralization has improved makes this perhaps a more imminent issue for us than other families.

    • Christina April 12, 2010, 9:12 pm

      I’m impressed. My daughter is pretty savvy and self-regulating, but offer the kid a cookie and she’ll take it. She might not eat all of it, though, and she does look to me for approval first, so I’m counting that as a win.

  • Ruthie Oland April 14, 2010, 12:05 pm

    Dear Christina,

    I love your blog. I thought you would be interested in The Equal Exchange Organic & Fair Trade Fundraising Program… a socially and environmentally-responsible way to support your school or local community group, while making a difference in communities abroad. In addition, the program comes with free educational tools to teach kids about where their food comes from.

    Check out: http://www.equalexchange.coop/fundraiser

    All the best to you!

    • Christina April 14, 2010, 4:20 pm

      Welcome, Ruthie, and thanks for the info.

  • Pamela April 14, 2010, 9:52 pm

    My recent challenge with nasty artificial flavored and colored refreshments being given out at kids’ activities was at my son’s hockey class. Without asking or informing the parents, the coach gave the kids melted slushy “juice” to drink during their break. My son had literally never had this before and loved it! It appeared that it was 50% of the reason he liked hockey class. Now, I’m not married to the idea of him playing hockey but I do want him to stick with it for awhile so I was hesitant to nix the slushy. Plus I get tired of always being the freak parent who objects to the status quo. But finally I couldn’t put up with it anymore so I set out to find a healthier alternative that would make him happy and give me peace of mind. Fortunately, my first attempt worked: I mixed organic tart cherry juice with a bit of maple syrup and added Perrier. He loved it. Then I asked him if he liked it better than “Coach Jason Juice” as we call the slushy.He did! And he is willing to drink our homemade juice treat from a thermos during class break! However, I admit that when I explained it to the coach I said, “We are having an issue with the colored juice,” implying that my son may have an allergy to the dye. It was a bit of subterfuge though not an actual lie, but, as I said, I get tired of being the freak health food parent sometimes!

    • Christina April 15, 2010, 1:07 am

      Great story. Sounds like a good solution to an all-too-common problem. Though how long is the class? Do you think the kids actually need a snack? One of these days I’ll blog about my thoughts on the snack culture that has pervaded every class/extracurricular/storytime/playgroup. It’s crazy-making how everything has a food component.

      • Pamela April 15, 2010, 4:47 pm

        The class is only 50 minutes and it’s very physical but I don’t think the kids really need a drink break, certainly not for slushy! The soccer class we did at the same place had a water break, which was good. But I don’t feel that I can ask my son to have nothing or have plain water when all the other kids are having a drink “treat.” That’s a good way to raise resentful kids who may eventually rebel and eat all the junk they can get their hands on! We are very careful to give him something tasty and healthy when other kids are having treats, and talk about why we eat differently. The great thing is that he almost always likes the healthy alternative better! Though I draw the line at lolly pops when we go through the bank drive-up window- they always see the kids and offer them lollies, which drives me nuts. I carry organic lolly pops with me for treat “emergencies,” but the bank is just not one of them!

  • Angie April 21, 2010, 8:31 pm

    I hear ya about the ice cream truck. I’ll be bringing it in for Mack. Tess is more than welcome to join in. Coconut milk ice cream & hemp milk ice cream are very popular in my house as are the whole-fruit frozen fruit treats.

  • Tiffany May 10, 2010, 1:49 pm

    I somehow recently stumbled on this blog and I love it and commend all of you parents for having children educated about food. I must ask though, in a world of pressures to fit in and such, how in the world do you get them to not want to eat “artificial colors”. I am recently married and trying to have children…some advice in how you have achieved this would be wonderful!

    • Angie May 10, 2010, 7:30 pm

      Hi Tiffany. It’s different for every child as to how they come to the point where they don’t want to eat the bad stuf. In my daughter’s case, she can’t have artifical food dyes because of the way it affects her behavior. That is the push for her. Even at 6 & 1/2 she knows how bad they are. She knows what they do to her. She hates that feeling of not being in control. My son, who is 9, has seen how food dyes affect his sister and he tends to stay away from them. Occasionally he will have something with artificial color but more and more he is asking for non-food-dyed alternatives. I guess if you start young, like at the begining, you’re kids will pick it up and soon it will become intrinsic. I made my kids’ babyfood because they both had dairy issues (and it was in so much of the jarred baby foods) and because my husband is a vegetarian and we wanted to raise the kids that way until they could start to make informed choices. I really feel that the start we gave them in infancy and toddler-hood has stuck with them. Children are so into “monkey-see monkey-do” so use that to your advantage. My kids will sooner pick up a carrot and hummus or fruit than candy or sweets because they see us do it. Make sure that they don’t see you eating anything that you don’t want them to eat. My philopsophy…..if I don’t want them to eat it, I just don’t buy it. If they want fruit snacks then they get the organic fruit leathers by Cliff or Archer Farms etc. My son doesn’t care for them but that is the only choice I give him so basically, fruit snacks are out of his diet. If they want chips occasionally, it’s Cape Cod or something else in the organic foods section. No Doritos, Fritos, etc. I’ve had to be the bad guy many times but in the end it’s worth it. They get over it and they understand why I make the decisions that I make based on food. They are not perfect when it comes to food choices. I try my hardest to educate them about what they put in their bodies but I can’t be with them all the time so I just have to trust that they make the right decisions when I’m not around. Good luck with your future family!

    • Christina May 11, 2010, 11:37 am

      So glad you found the blog. To your question: We’ve talked with our daughter since she was very young about how chemicals (including fake colors) affect our bodies. Basically, we tell her that many foods contain ingredients that don’t come from nature, or that have been altered so much that they no longer resemble their natural origins. We talk about how, when we eat these ingredients, our bodies feel yucky, and how, if we eat enough of them, we can become sick. We’ve also talked about how food dyes and other additives, in particular, can make her feel hyper and out of control.

      And, truly, once you start talking to kids about this stuff and they realize how good real food tastes, it becomes easier. Because even if they absolutely must try the blue cupcake (because their friends are or just because it’s pretty), soon enough they realize it doesn’t taste very good. It’s a beautiful thing to see my daughter taste something at a party and decide after one bite that she doesn’t want anymore. Not saying that happens all the time, but, when it does, it’s awesome.

      The tricky thing is when she asks why other people eat this stuff regularly. Then I explain that not everyone realizes yet how bad some things are, but that they’re still learning, and so are we. (She hasn’t asked yet, in any depth anyway, why food companies even make this stuff. But when she does, I’ll give her the kid-friendly explanation of government subsidies, corporate greed and bad food science.)

      Not sure if you saw my other post on artificial colors. It was about how I used natural Easter egg dyes to help make tangible the difference between fake dyes and colors that appear in nature. The post also had a lot of background info about food dyes in general.

      You’re at a big advantage in starting to think about this already!

  • Nina June 22, 2012, 12:39 pm

    We had a mom at baseball that would pass out Ding Dongs and Ho Hos after EVERY. SINGLE. GAME. I didn’t even realize that people still bought those things let along thought it was okay to pass those little chemical bombs out to other people’s kids. I am okay with an occasional treat, like you said, but every single game? Oy!

  • Leann June 22, 2012, 3:10 pm

    I recently started the Feingold program with my kids. While the education about how things effect us has been eye opening, I have turned into one of those “freak out” moms. We are involved in a lot of activities, and have had to provide alternatives for everything. My kids are always having something “different”, and I’m always saying “NO”. I’m re thinking this and trying to find a balance. I like your approach. My concern in easing up is how my kids view the change, and whether they will make good choices on their own. Especially when they are offered the bad things sooooooo often.

  • Thank goodness for your blog. I sometimes think I’m alone….I started off upsetting a few moms in preschool last Sept as was trying to change the class snack from processed snacks to us providing fresh fruit or vegetables. Then I tried to get them to do away with the juice, it was impossible. Through the school year I’ve got a bit slack as I was fed up of being perceived as the healthy food nut, but now it’s summer and we’ve had end of school celebrations. I am truly horrified by the amount of junk I’ve seen. Brightly colored cupcakes, ice pops, hideous. Thanks for inspiring me to get back on my crusade. It is so important to protect these perfect little bodies! The positive is my 5 year old twins had their first McDonalds experience at an airport and BOTH refused to eat their breakfast as it tasted funny….a small victory!

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