Friday, September 9, 2011

Junk food as a reward

I just sent this email to our school superintendent:
Hi -- I’ve noticed with increasing frequency that our elementary school is using junk food -- candy, bubble gum, licorice, etc. -- as a reward for “good behavior.” I dislike the district’s pervasive use of rewards to get kids to obey school rules, but using junk food for that purpose is particularly objectionable, especially in a society where childhood obesity is becoming an epidemic. It also seems to violate the district’s wellness policy. Would you be willing to make it clear that ICCSD schools should not use junk food as a reward?

Thank you for your consideration.
I'll post any reply that I receive.

UPDATE 1: Here is the superintendent's reply:
Thank you for bringing this to my attention. While in my previous district I worked to end the sale of all pop during the school day and eliminate the use of candy and other related food as rewards in classrooms. We develop a very comprehensive Food and Beverage Guideline. I cannot locate a copy of that this morning, however, I will do so and bring that to Susie Poulton, Director of Health and Student Services.

I know that you have been very active in working to improve the nutrition focus in our District. I recently worked with Assistant Superintendent Becky Furlong to review with our principals the current lunch practices. Some of the changes made last year seem to be working at some schools. Others are not working as well. Becky is working with the Elementary Principals to gather a comprehensive records of the current lunch room practices so that the schools can learn from each other and work to provide the best environment for the children. One promising practice that has been reported is the movement of recess prior to lunch. I know from the reports at my house that at both the elementary and junior high school levels that students still have concerns about the length of the lunch period. While we have not identified a solution that meets all expectations, we are working to that end.

If you have further input on either of these issues, I would welcome additional correspondence or a call.
Readers, is that a “No”?

UPDATE 2: My reply:
Thanks for the quick reply. What I'm after is an authoritative statement from the district prohibiting the use of junk food as a reward in school. I don't think that would require the passage of a new policy; just an application of the existing wellness policy. I can certainly understand wanting to hear from Susie Poulton on the issue first, but am I right to assume that you make the ultimate call on how to interpret that policy? If so, how long do you anticipate it will take to make that decision? The practice of using junk food as a reward seems so plainly indefensible that it would surprise me if there had to be a lengthy consideration of the issue. Would we be talking about a few days?
His very quick reply:
Good Afternoon Chris,

The short answer is yes, I make that decision and yes, that should not require a lengthy re-write of policy.

I want to make sure that appropriate members of the administrative are part of the decision and on board with enforcement to insure that it is not a proclamation in name only.
My reply:
Sounds reasonable. Any time frame?
His reply:
I have to meet with Susie on another issue on Monday morning. If we have enough time we will add this to the agenda. If not, I am sure we can make some determination before the end of the week.
To which I responded, "Terrific -- thank you." Stay tuned . . .


FedUpMom said...

This is just one more example of how schools violate current middle-class parenting norms.

I can't think of any of our cultural "experts", from pediatricians to Oprah to Dr. Phil, who would endorse rewarding kids with candy for good behavior.

Doris said...

I think it's a "no." To his credit, he did respond quickly. But he doesn't answer your (to my mind) unambiguous question.

I gather that the information in the first paragraph is intended to provide evidence that he is sympathetic to your concerns because he acted on similar ones in his previous district. But saying that he "worked to end" sales of soda pop and the use of junk food as rewards isn't the same as saying he did indeed ban them.

And the tactic he uses in the second paragraph seems like something straight out of a pop parenting manual: put a lid on your little temper tantrum by offering a distraction--the length of school lunch. Granted, that is still very much an important issue, and, again, I'd give him credit for remembering that you are one of the people involved in efforts to lengthen the lunch period. But he's dodging the specific question in your email of whether the use of junk food rewards in the classrooms violates the Wellness Policy.

I guess it can't hurt if Poulton reads over the food and beverage guidelines from Murley's old district, but I would have preferred to hear him say that he would 1) ask her to make a determination about whether the practices you describe violate the existing ICCSD Wellness policy, 2) if they do, ascertain from her or someone else whether they can, as a result, be unilaterally banned in all ICCSD schools, and 3) if they can, tell you he's going to do it by issuing a mandate to that effect this Monday morning.

Chris said...

Let's see how many emails it takes to get a real answer to a question about a practice that is plainly indefensible.

Chris said...

I later sent one more email, saying, "By the way, I think the best approach would be to prohibit any use of food as a reward. Otherwise you'll end up with constant arguments about what counts as 'junk food.' A lot of people have some funny ideas of what a healthy snack is."

FedUpMom said...

Chris, even if he gets rid of junk food rewards, they're still chained to the reward system. The rewards will just get lamer and lamer.

Doris said...

I agree w/ your follow-up suggestion about simply prohibiting any use of food as a reward. Not only will people differ as to the definition of "junk food," as you point out, but when you really start thinking about what's at stake, the issue can go a lot farther than whether the food is healthful for the children. What were the conditions under which the food was produced? Did the farmers earn a fair wage? What was the impact on the environment? Those kinds of questions may not be of concern to the Wellness policy, but they are part of the equation for many people who complain about the ways in which public schools indoctrinate children to "buy into" the industrial food system.

Hoover said...

I hope to use your blog in class as an excellent example of cognitive dissonance at its finest.
Skittles? Pages and pages of complaining about Skittles? What about disproportional suspension rates for African-Americans? What about special needs students being sent to warehouse classrooms on Capital Street and 1st Avenue? What about the rising dropout rate? And you're worried about Skittles?

Fortunately, your fundamental argument against PBIS is baseless, because, as you conveniently chose to ignore, PBIS has a strong, irrefutable foundation in the empirical research base.

However, empirical evidence (which you dismiss as rubbish, pseudo-science, etc.) along with Skittles, appear to go against your personal belief system.

You are an idealogue, and a bully idealogue at that. You feel your personal belief system (and not just your interpretation of the empirical evidence) should be manandated immediately (by Monday) for all children in the district. Be damn anyone else with a different set of beliefs. And be damn sure they don't get the place to voice their concerns in the proper forum, which you should have done in the first place. But as a narcissist, you feel your beliefs come first and that the normal rules and procedures don't apply to you.

Nothing more than a bully worried about himself.

Chris said...


1. I think you should look up “cognitive dissonance.” It does not mean focusing on small problems while ignoring larger ones.

2. I think the fact that we’re teaching kids unthinking obedience instead of independent critical thinking, and immersing them in authoritarian values, and helping them become obese, is a big problem. I understand that others feel differently; I make the argument in hopes of persuading people. Are there more important issues? Sure. Are people allowed to blog only about the one most important issue? No. Where is your blog on disproportionate suspension rates for African-Americans? I’d like to read it.

3. Please, please do cite some empirical evidence supporting PBIS. Then we can take a close look at the studies you cite and see what they actually show. While you’re at it, take a look at the empirical studies listed in the thirty-five page bibliography of Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards.

4. Please also cite some studies examining the effect of programs like PBIS on whether the kids who are subjected to them are more likely to develop authoritarian belief systems, and on whether they become less likely to question the status quo, and on whether they become more likely to treat other people instrumentally, and on whether they are more materialistic as adults. You have those studies, right?

5. Please also cite some empirical studies proving that I am wrong to hold the values that I hold, and wrong to argue in favor of them.

6. As for your opinion that I’m a bully, I’d sure like to know your definition. Does it apply to anyone who makes a policy argument that you disagree with?

7. Please do enlighten me about the “rules and procedures” of making policy arguments in the “proper forum.” Apparently it’s inappropriate to speak publicly about what goes on in a public school? And what is it that I did, exactly, to make “damn sure” that people who disagree with me “don’t get the place to voice their concerns in the proper forum”?

8. Or, forget about 1 through 7, and just make an actual argument about why it’s a good idea to use candy and junk food as a reward in school. I wrote that it was indefensible; you obviously disagree. So defend it! Isn’t hearing arguments and counterarguments a good way to hash out the merits of any policy proposal? Or would that make you a bully?

Chris said...

The superintendent's response to my suggestion that the district prohibit any use of food as a reward:

"I would concur. Apparently there has been a great deal of push back in the District when this has been tackled in the past. I was truly blessed in Wisconsin at the time I did the pop and candy restrictions because I had a pediatrician as Board President who was a wonderful advocate and ran a great deal of interference for me.

"I hope to have this issue moving forward this week!"

Doris said...

I think this information is up-to-date: Skittles is a brand produced and sold by Wrigley, which is itself a division of Mars, a privately owned company which at least up until very recently purchased its cocoa beans from farmers (in Africa) who exploited child laborers. And the story of how those Skittles came to consist mostly of high fructose corn syrup, sugar, and hydrogenated palm kernel oil isn't much prettier.

I can think of few things more important than teaching ourselves and our children to think critically about the global food system.

Doris said...

What Murley is saying here seems honest (I would like to do what you ask) and sensible (I don't know if I have the political support necessary to make it happen).

For every person like me there may be 10 people like "Hoover," for all I know. If that's truly the case, perhaps the Wellness policy should be rewritten to reflect reality. It would be less hypocritical that way.

Does anyone know what kind of "push back" Murley is talking about from when the issue was raised before? Did it come from parents? teachers?

KD said...

Who is paying for the various rewards that the PBIS system is handing out? I'd guess that the district must be purchasing some of the rewards.

It seems like there would be better uses for district money than the bracelets you've talked about, or for frequent junk food.

Chris said...

Doris -- I suspect "Hoover's" comment is an example of the "push back" that Murley refers to. Some teachers and administrators are probably very attached to using candy as a reward. "Hoover" argues that the issue is so trivial that he or she can't understand why I'd make a fuss about it -- yet none of the other issues I've raised provoked "Hoover" to post an angry comment. Strange as it seems to you and me, there must be some people who get really upset at the idea that they can't dish out candy to our kids to get them to do stuff.

The other day I mentioned the issue to a teacher in a nearby district (College Community). She was very surprised that it was an issue; in her district, she said, they are never allowed to use food as a reward.

Chris said...

KD -- My guess is that the cost of the rewards doesn't add up to much, and that the teachers who use candy are supplying it themselves. But the PBIS training (which may still be going on, for all I know) took teachers out of the classroom on a regular basis, and that had to cost real money. As I understand it, PBIS is funded by a federal grant -- though, of course, that money comes from taxpayers, too.