I'm happily in the process of helping to green my daughter's preschool. I've aided them in their search for gentle industrial green products, and more eco- and kid-friendly hand soap. And I'm currently involved with a snack committee. It's a co-op school, so parents are responsible for bringing in food for the kids on the day they're also helping out in the classroom. The goal is to make sure our children are snacking on healthier things by setting up shopping guidelines and suggestions for parents. We're all already being mindful not to bring in anything that could cause allergic reactions, so the committee is thinking it won't be a huge leap to make to scan ingredient lists for a few more best-to-avoid items.
Here's a working draft of a "top ten" list (in no particular order) which I recently sent to the committee, and which will eventually be sent out to the school. Is there something I'm not thinking about? Or is there a great snack your kids love? Let me know in comments.
The best items to bring in are whole foods, and this doesn't mean things from Whole Foods but rather items that are whole/entire, and are close to how they came out of the earth -- i.e. unprocessed. Carrots, apples, nuts (though of course not the ones banned for food allergy reasons) etc.
When it comes to things that are processed and then packaged like crackers and pretzels, ingredient lists should be very, very short. Michael Pollan has some rule of thumb about things not having any more than five ingredients in them. He also contends that if you can't pronounce or say an ingredient, you shouldn't eat it. These are simple and wise commonsense guidelines. We also obviously want to be avoiding trans fats.
Organic food has proven to be safest for growing children, and can be more nutritious than its conventional counterparts. Choose it. For everything. It's not that much more expensive for something as small as snacks. Not only does organic mean avoiding pesticide sprays and residues, but we're keeping those very things out of the earth and waterways they've inherited. With regard to crackers or anything that might contain some version of processed soy or corn (i.e. everything packaged), choosing organic means the corn and soy (and everything else) aren't allowed to be genetically modified. The above-mentioned five ingredient rule should also apply to organic crackers and the like -- just because something is organic doesn't mean it isn't overly processed.
When you cannot find organic fruits or veggies, or if something organic is just too expensive compared to its conventional counterpart, turn to the Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen list. They tested and tested and came up with a list of the 12 least contaminated and 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables. If you're buying conventional, choose from their least contaminated list and always avoid the most contaminated list. It's a list that can be printed and put in your wallet. And certainly something we can link to off our school Website.
There is a time and a place for it, but I'd argue that school snack isn't it (besides birthdays, and there are ample birthdays throughout the school year). If you're buying graham cracker sorts of things, read the ingredient list. I'm not sure I think graham crackers or any food in the shape of animals (teddies etc.) are really food. I'd love to ban them, but that might be too extreme to enforce.
Whole grains are proven again and again to be good for us, and excellent for growing kids. Most parents I hear from are trying to figure out how to work more grains into their diet. If you're buying things like crackers, rice cakes, and pretzels, opt for whole grain versions. There are spelt pretzels, for example, instead of white flour ones. Speaking of pretzels, low salt or no salt is a better idea for kids, as well. With (air popped) popcorn, organic is a must to avoid GM corn.
To make it easy for parents, give specific instructions to go along with general guidelines. List which snacks can be purchased at which stores near the school, so people can just pick up the good stuff on the way in to school, and not have to bother trying to figure out which hummus contains sugar or which pita has an unexpected soy additive in it.
Many parents bring in cheese and crackers. Some even bring in packaged yogurt to avoid hormones and antibiotics (treatment of the animals and other environmental issues factor in here, of course, but no point in beating everyone over the head when we're trying to get them on board!). The packaged yogurts aren't great because of the packaging, but also because of the shocking amount of sugar in them (Marion Nestle, in her tome What to Eat, goes off on packaged yogurts for young kids).
Set up a pot for parents who aren't interested in being involved to put their snack cash in. Parents who like shopping for food can step up and do it for them, just as with all other duties at school.
I'm saving the best for last: meat. It's not actually the sort of thing parents tend to bring in for snack at our school, but from time to time they do bring in cold cuts. If people bring in meat at your school, stick your meat suggestions at the top of the list. Chemicals and other toxins bioaccumulate in the flesh of animals at the top of the food chain. Organic is a must here.
Oh, and, don't forget to think about what you're serving these snacks on -- and the water in.
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