Family life

Manitoba mom fined over daycare's bizarre lunch rules

Should daycares and governments tell parents what their children can eat? Jennifer Pinarksi doesn't think so.

1SchoolLunchesPinarski-November2013-iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband, while staying home to raise their two young children.

Last December, Kristen Bartkiw packed a homemade lunch of roast beef, carrots, potatoes and milk for her children to take to the Little Cub’s Den daycare in Rossburn, Manitoba. She quickly learned that the staff didn’t deem her lunch nutritionally complete because grains weren’t included. According to the daycare’s policy, the lunch didn’t follow Canada’s Food Guide or the regulations set by the Manitoba Early Learning and Child Care Act, so the staff had to provide a supplement and pass the cost on to the parents. Sounds like an OK policy, right?

But what made parents and health experts shriek with horror was the fact that the daycare supplemented Bartkiw’s lunch with Ritz crackers and fined her $10. Her run-in with the daycare was blogged about by Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa and an outspoken critic of Canada’s Food Guide.

Since then, the Little Cub’s Den daycare has both abolished the policy of fining parents and instituted a hot lunch program (paid into by parents) that Bartkiw is quoted as saying is great. The Manitoba government went one step further yesterday and told licensed daycares in the province to stop taking Canada’s Food Guide so literally.

Read more: Why government trans fat bans won’t help you >

But now that everyone has had time to calm down (after all, this occurred three days ago and social media has a short attention span), I think it’s important to think about why this issue went viral in the first place. After all, it’s a handful of crackers given to healthy, gluten-tolerant and allergy-free children. If whole wheat toast was handed out instead, this would have been a non-issue, right? In my opinion, there are two hot topics:

1. Daycares and schools need to be held to higher standards than Canada’s Food Guide (or stay out of our kids’ lunch boxes all together)
“There’s no doubt that Canada’s Food Guide is far from science’s best understanding of the impact of diet on chronic disease,” Freedhoff tells me. When I asked him about his story having a positive impact on future revisions to the guidelines, Freedhoff was doubtful. “Unfortunately for Canadians, the Food Guide isn’t something we change very often and I wouldn’t recommend holding your breath for a good one next time around,” he says.

Freedhoff points out that daycare workers are generally underpaid and not specifically trained in nutrition. In talking to other Early Childhood Education (ECE) students in Manitoba and Ontario, I learned that nutrition education is indeed not part of the curriculum. Freedhoff is doubtful that daycares will make changes to their menus. “Hopefully the memo from the Manitoba government will put an end to nonsensical programs like the one leading to the fine and provision of Ritz crackers, but I can’t see how it will do any more than that,” he says.

Personally, I think schools have no place in telling me what I should feed my children. Several parents I talked to echoed my sentiments. Some parents said they send their kids to school with microwaveable Kraft dinners because it’s the only thing they’ll eat at school — but their kids eat a breakfast of fruit, protein-packed eggs and hot cereal in the morning. Feeding kids is hard enough, we don’t need to be told we’re doing it wrong.

2. Parents need to be more vocal about the foods served in schools and daycares
Unfortunately, Canada’s Food Guide is left wide open to interpretation. Several friends told me that hot dogs, juice, processed cheese and granola bars routinely show up on their school and daycare meal plans. Some people have gone so far as pulling their kids from these schools, whereas others have pushed to make nutrition changes. One pal, who sits on the board of her son’s daycare, pushed to have juice eliminated and is now working to reduce the amount of sodium-filled processed foods that are served to kids. At my own kids’ school I’ve volunteered to bake the muffins served at our hot breakfast program, opting to make them from scratch so that the amount of sugar, sodium and saturated fat is reduced.

Read more: Snacks: 10 healthy store-bought options >

My point is we need to stop freaking out about how other people feed their kids kids, and focus instead on making real changes in our own communities. It doesn’t need to be as drastic as Bartkiw sending her daycare’s note to a popular blog but, if anything, the situation gave us all food for thought.

Are you happy with how your kids are fed at daycare? If not, are you pushing for change? Tweet me your experiences @jenpinarski.

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