So what if, on our way to work in the morning, we put $3.00 worth of corn syrup in our gas tanks? This question obviously does not require an answer. In fact, The FTC Consumer Information Report says people “spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year,” on higher-octane gas than their automobiles require because they want to increase the chances of them
performing to maximum capacity especially under adverse conditions. Now, this certainly does not guarantee that these properly nourished automobiles will not have a bad day but it does give them an edge.
So, what if we are paying more attention to what goes into our automobiles’ gas tank than we are to what goes in our children’s bodies? This question does need to be answered. I hope my observation will help us do so.
Counting generic black plastic bags – you know the generic ones you get when you buy something from the dollar store, the gas station or what is called “the corner store” even if it is in the middle of the block? I was on the bus. The time on the electronic bus announcer said 7:32 a.m. It was Wednesday, a school day.
When I ride the bus, I’m either reading, talking or observing. I did not want to read. There was no one to talk with so I was people watching which is why I noticed that most of the elementary and high school kids got on the bus carrying one of those bags. My compulsion to count kicked in. As the bus traveled from 300 East to 1700 West, I counted 23 kids who got on with a bulging black plastic bag.
I can safely say the black plastic bag carried by each of the kids had at least three of the following: a bag of flamin’ hot (chips or fries), a chocolate bar, chewy or hard candy, a flavored drink. These foods are rendered seductively appealing to the eyes and the palate by adding food coloring (yellow 5 and 6, blue 1 and the infamous Red 40), fats and critic acid that make candies and drinks taste like real fruit.
A 1/1/8 oz. bag of flamin’ hots cost 25 cents (kids generally buy more than one) has 160 calories, 11 carbs and 250 grams of sodium. A 16 oz. psychedelic colored flavored fruit drink in a hard plastic BPA-laden bottle that brags about having 100% vitamin C supplies kids with 100 calories, 25 gram of carbs, 23 gram of added sugar and 130 grams of sodium.
A chocolate bar can have as many with as 280 calories, 33 carbs, 27 grams of added sugar, and 120 grams of sodium. A package of hard candy (serving size 3 pieces) can have as many as 70 calories, 11 grams of added sugar 17 carbs and 10 grams of sodium while a serving size of chewy candy (9 pieces) can have 130 calories, 34 carbs, 22 gram of added sugar and 40 grams of sodium. In the interest of full disclosure, some of the candies and chip do have a speck of fiber and a dribble of protein.
For 14 city blocks, I watched kids laugh, talk and playfully tease as they consumed colorful “MNV” (minimal nutritional value) foods – foods that has little or none of the protective properties needed to nourish growing bodies and developing brains: whole grain foods such as vitamins, minerals and fiber. If, by the time these kids got off the bus, (some of their bags were empty) they had eaten just one serving of each of the MNV food described above, they walked into the first class of their five-hour school day under the influence of 740 empty calories, 34 simple carbohydrates, 83 grams of added sugar and 1,050 grams of sodium peppered with critic acid and assortment of food coloring, fats and other things that have unreadable and unpronounceable names.
Teachers with whom I spoke said the first 90 minutes or so of the school day is devoted to reading – a subject that requires kids to attend, concentrate and comprehend. But, here is the problem. The kids are not, like our automobile, beginning their day with high performance fuel. Consider the following.
Taking age and gender differences into consideration, the recommended daily number of calories for the average active school age child is between 1,200 and 2,400 and between 2,200 and 2,800 for the average active teen. According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control), at least 40% these calories should come from nutrient-rich foods such as grains, fruits, vegetables, protein and dairy products. Both the CDC and the Harvard School of Public Health says 1,500 grams of sodium per day is “adequate” for children. For kids between the ages of 9 and 18 years the recommended limit is 2,300 grams. The America Heart Association recommends five to eight teaspoons of added sugar (equal to approximately 21 to 33 grams) as the daily consumption for preteens and teen. Remember, these numbers hold only if kids are active.
So, imagine these kids in their first period class doing an individual reading assignment or group reading project or taking a quiz or a midterm exam with bodies and brains fueled with approximately 33% of the recommended daily allotment of calories, 65% of the sodium and over 50% added sugar (equivalent to approximately 19 teaspoons) and it may not even be 9:00 o’clock in the morning.
I am not ignoring individual differences nor am I naive about the many variables that impact how children respond in a learning environment but these differences do not lessen the need to ask, “Are our automobiles more important than our kids”? We are meticulous about the fuel we put in our automobiles because we believe there is a relationship between what we “feed” them and what we want from them which is consistently high performance over a designated period of time. Understandably, we want the same things from our kids. Problem is, their “on-the-way-to-school” snack fuels their bodies and minds with substances that make consistently high performance challenging for some and nearly impossible for others. And, according to teachers, kids are, by mid-morning, tired, sleepy and short-tempered and distracted. Teachers’ observations and descriptions of their students’ behaviors is supported by pediatricians, brain scientists, nutritionists, and health and social science researchers, all of who say one way or another that the consequences of eating MNV foods on a regular basis is not just limited to these immediate affects. Kids can also experience “complications like learning problematic eating patterns, childhood obesity, chronic illness, low self-esteem, food addictions, type two diabetes, depression and suicide.” In 2012, the Center for Food Safety said, “Obese children are also more likely to develop high cholesterol and heart disease later in life.” The Women’s and Children’s Health Network warn that poor eating habits during the early years can cause “changes associated with disease at a more advanced age.”
I am probably pushing this point beyond what is necessary. But, humor me. If kids consume some version of MNV foods before arriving at school every morning, by the end of a school month (20 days) their bodies and brains will be saturated with 21, 000 grams of sodium and 380 teaspoons of added sugar and 15,600 empty calories. Multiply these numbers by nine (months in the traditional school year) and we are talking about kids who can perform about as well as an automobile whose engine no longer revs up as soon as the key turns in the ignition. Keep in mind, these numbers do not include after school and weekend consumption. Nor do they include fast foods and breakfast cereal. What makes this critically important? The accumulative affect. There is no arguing with the research. A steady diet of MNV foods can negatively impact every aspect of a kid’s life during school years and beyond. .
What can we do? The first thing is not to play the famous, “whose to blame” game – pointing fingers at “these trifling parents who are too lazy to get up and fix breakfast for their kids.” While I have no doubt that this is an accurate description of some parents, I think we limited our ability to search for meaningful solutions if we assume that nutritional neglect is the primary reason kids eat MNV foods on their way to school.
I also have no doubt that some of these kids ate breakfast at home – the one most enjoyed by this age group – boxed cereal purchase by adults who understand the importance of not going to school hungry. As well intentioned as this is, EWG (Environmental Working Group) says, “181 of the 1,556 cereals” on store shelves are marketed to children. They have “40% more sugar” than those that do not target children. This means kids who eat a breakfast of dry cereal (or pop tarts or instant hot cereals) and then consume MNV foods begin their school day at greater cognitive risk than kids who do not eat breakfast at home.
If we are not going to blame, what can we do? We can be guided by the perspective of Dr. Sylvia Rimm, Family Achievement Center, “Children and adults alike are influenced by their peers, but children who are still in the process of developing a value system are more vulnerable to negative influences, “and ask, “what if this behavior is more representative of a social norm than of anything else?” This would give educators, youth development specialist, coaches and others a way of partnering with kids and parents to change the norms that drives this behavior.
Social norms are established when we believe participating in a particular activity gives us credibility among the peer group to which we belong or want to belong. This has been documented around behaviors such as binge drinking among college students and smoking among kids as young as eight years old. If going to the store, buying the junk food and eating it on the way to school is part of a kid’s social identify, this behavior will continue because as Dr. Rimm said kids have not yet developed “a value system” that will allow them to make wise dietary decisions.
Stopping at the store and buying junk food on the way to school did not begin with this generation. It is the difference in the times that has created the need for adult intervention. The most significant of these differences seems to be working parents, the wide variety of MNV foods that are available, the amount of discretionary money kids have, neighborhood store owners who may not be personally connected to the communities in which they do business and the frequency with which kids eat processed and fast foods.
Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, authors of Connected were asked, “Can people work to change their neighborhood environment to create positive effects on themselves and their community? Their response: “Yes, absolutely! Make good behavior visible.”
Can we make good nutritional behavior visible? Yes, absolutely. We can increase our understanding of how the foods kids are consuming in the morning are affecting their interest and behavior in school. And, we can implement an “It takes a village” approach to developing and implementing strategies that will ultimately empower kids so their decisions about what goes into their bodies are as thoughtful as the decisions we make about the gas we put in our automobiles.