Sugar Wars

As some of you may recall, before the summer we had a crisis regarding our daughter’s schooling. We finally decided on a Christian pre-school in our own local church, which may not be the best academically, but at least we know (or thought we knew) the people.

A few days before the start of the new school year, however, we were again plunged into crisis.  We were originally told by the director that the school did not serve sugary snacks, that they were careful to limit the mid-morning nosh to pretzels, crackers, and fruit. “Of course,” the director added, “we have no control over what parents may bring.” We thought the comment odd at the time since, naturally, as director she would have control over what could be or could not be consumed on school premises. There is a great effort in this school to eliminate any snack containing peanuts or tree nuts, to the extent that any product manufactured in a facility that handles nuts is also banned.

You must understand that we are not sugar-nazis. From infancy our daughter has loved anything green. Her first solid food was an avocado. To this day, if allowed to roam outside unsupervised, she is quite capable of wiping  out my entire collard or lettuce crop. She loves alfalfa. We want to nurture her natural love for fruit and vegetables and to help her develop good food-choice habits for life. My wife slaves away trying to create tasty treats with sugar alternatives. Of course, as our child gets older, we are not always there to protect her (from other kids at school who want to share their dessert, or from grandmotherly types who, like snipers, pop up suddenly and without warning, to slip her a sugar fix).  So under the influence of a well-meaning but sugar-addicted culture, her tastes are gradually changing. But for now, the rules at home are still sugar-free, except for the occasional holiday treat.

I attended the school’s parent night, an orientation for parents of new students. When I read the handout, it contained a sheet listing banned and approved snack items. Apparently, parents may sometimes supply snacks for the class, for holidays or birthday parties. The approved list looked like an explosion at a Hostess factory, and included such items as chocolate pudding tubes and Krispy Kreme donuts (but not ones made in factories handling nuts). I was shocked. I looked around the room. The vast majority of parents, I noted, were morbidly obese. I could not even see around the people in front of me and had to move. I was starting to think we had just parachuted down into a lost tribe of sugar eaters, who, locked into the 1960s, still sprayed their playgrounds with DDT, dispensed Thalidomide, and pumped their kids daily with C12H22O11.

During the Q&A I stood up. “We have a no sugar policy at home. Not because we’re the sugar police, but because of health concerns, certain genetic predispositions for diabetes, and how our child reacts to sugar, which can really get ugly.”  (A few people nod their heads.) “I’m looking at your approved snack list, and I’m starting to sweat. Is there some way we can avoid this by bringing our own snack, etc…?”

But the director assured me that they would work with us and later, in a private meeting, reiterated that they would do all they could to respect our wishes. The teacher also reassured us. So we agreed the teacher would give us advanced warning if there was to be a snack over which they had no control. We felt some relief.

We have had similar issues with the Sunday school snacks at the church. Appropriate snacks like crackers, pretzels, or Goldfish are fine with us. Cookies, donuts, Ho-Hos and Scooter Pies are not. But from week to week, we don’t know what to expect, because the policy, as with the pre-school, is so lax there. Last Sunday, my wife had a run-in with one of the children’s directors, because our daughter was given candy. She was informed that the high volume of child allergies (nuts, dairy, gluten, etc.) made the snack choices very narrow. “There’s almost nothing left,” the woman said. When my wife suggested something from the Plantae kingdom (a sometimes overlooked taxonomic category which includes things like fruit and vegetables, and can sometimes be found in grocery stores, a few aisles over from the Ding Dongs and Doritos), she was told these were too expensive and would not store well. Ok, I understand. Then stick with Goldfish. I don’t care if my child has a fist full of Goldfish once a week at Sunday School; she’s not dining there. But I do resent someone pumping her full of sucrose and sending her home for us to deal with.

Well, this week the teacher emailed me saying a parent was bringing a special snack on Thursday, and they didn’t know what it would be. Just in case, I brought a nutritious snack for my daughter and spoke clearly to both teachers, saying, “I will trust your judgment. If the special snack turns out to be sweet, please give her the one we provided. My daughter said she would be ok with that. If the snack is not sweet, she can certainly participate.” My daughter returned from school and told me one of the teachers gave her a chocolate donut. I was livid but tried to keep calm, realizing I was putting my child in the middle of what seemed to be quickly developing into a crusade. I made sure she understood that I was not angry at her, and it was not her fault. I think she may have felt she was betraying her teachers (sure, wouldn’t you want to protect your pusher?). But I also might not have had the whole story. So the next day I asked the teacher how it went. “I broke a chocolate donut in half and gave it to her,” she said, “so she wouldn’t feel left out.” Ok. So she went with the “I trust your judgment part.” She just ignored the rest of my instructions.

Most educators know that sugar is a huge disruptor, not to mention the health issues and links to hyperactivity disorders, diabetes, and obesity. Children simply cannot learn if their brains are saturated with insulin. I think the problem at this school, and the church in general, stems from a particular root:  those in charge, who set the policy, are unable to set a boundary there because they are unable to set a boundary with their own children and in their own lives. But the problem is not confined to our church, I know. The American church in general is a major enabler of various addictions, not the least of which is sugar. Not surprisingly, there is a higher obesity rate among Christians here.

Having grown up in the South, my wife also pointed out that for so many generations after the War of Northern Aggression, the South was poor, and recipes laden with sugar and fat became comfort foods. Think of things like sweet tea, pecan pie, sugary barbecue sauce, chicken fried steak and gravy.

I wonder if, since Christian churches are so devoted to the god of sucrose, why are we attending this Wonder Bread church, with its dry Danish cookies that taste like buttered plaster, when there are ethnic churches out there, like the Greek Orthodox, where the baklava is out of this world, or the German Moravians, whose sugar cake love feast buns are a-mazing?

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