Once a month, the halls of my kids’ elementary school fill with the smell of steamy cheese as parent volunteers rush around, delivering coveted cardboard boxes to hangry students. It’s pizza day! While the majority of kids gobble up greasy slices of Hawaiian and pepperoni pizzas, others look on longingly, likely feeling left out.
The same scene plays out in schools across the country every day. Thousands of parent advisory councils (PACs) offer programs that serve up junk food, such as pizza, burgers and chicken fingers, from fast-food chains, like Domino’s, McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken, on a weekly or monthly basis.
Pizza day and other fast-food programs are often fundraisers for school field trips, library books and art supplies, but some PACs don’t make a penny off these lunch programs. It’s not a fundraiser at my kids’ school; it’s just something that the PAC does to take the edge off every first Friday of the month. It’s a day for the kids to enjoy a treat with their friends and for their parents to enjoy a break from packing lunches.
But I’m not buying it, figuratively or literally. Why? Because junk food, garbage, advertising and reinforcers of class differences have no place in our classrooms in the midst of an obesity epidemic and a climate crisis and in a country where one in five kids lives in poverty.
Call me a mean mom, but my kids, ages nine and six, are surprisingly OK with passing on the pie. Sure, they want to participate in pizza day, but they also want unlimited screen time, tropical vacations and a puppy. We don’t always get what we want, and there are often very good reasons why. Here they are.
Many of these special lunch programs offer junk food, while only a few include healthier alternatives, such as sushi and smoothies. With 30 percent of Canadian children ages five to 17 considered overweight or obese, we should be promoting healthy foods in the classroom, not normalizing fast food by regularly foisting it on families and suggesting to kids that it’s nutritious.
Childhood obesity rates in Canada have nearly tripled over the past three decades, and obesity leads to a laundry list of physical and mental health issues, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, depression and low self-esteem. Junk food can also slow kids down, physically and mentally, or cause hyperactivity, disrupting their classroom and playground activities.
Most kids love pizza day and junk food, and there’s nothing wrong with a treat once in a while, but it shouldn’t be delivered to their desks on a weekly or monthly basis. As obesity doctor Yoni Freedhoff, an associate professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, writes on his blog Weighty Matters: “We are all the proverbial frogs in pots of water that have slowly been heated to a boil, where food, especially junk food, is constantly used to reward, pacify and entertain our children, as well as fundraise for every cause.”
There are lots of reasons why families pass on fast-food programs, but one of the most common reasons is that they can’t afford them. With 20 percent of children living below the poverty line, many families can’t even pay for groceries, let alone these hot lunches that cost $5 to $10 a pop. Even families that aren’t living in poverty can still have a tough time making ends meet due to “the squeeze,” which is caused by stagnant incomes, growing debt and the high cost of child care and housing. Most PACs will pony up for families that can’t afford special lunch days—and some make it possible for families to sponsor other families—but shame and stigma stop some people from seeking help, especially when it’s for something as trivial as a personal pan pizza.
Many families also skip these fast-food lunch programs for dietary reasons (such as being vegan or having serious food allergies), ethical reasons (such as not wanting to support multinational corporations that source meat from factory farms) and cultural or religious reasons (such as following Jewish religious laws that limit what people can eat and how foods must be prepared). PACs typically don’t offer alternatives for these families.
Kids can feel left out when most of their classmates are chowing down on junk food and they’re not. They may even get teased for not participating. It doesn’t help that these extracurricular lunch programs are promoted with the same enthusiasm as professional development days. At my kids’ school, pizza day reminders appear on the official calendar, in the newsletter, in kids’ agendas and on classroom whiteboards. The principal even announces pizza day over the PA system during his morning messages.
Research shows that being excluded can lead to emotional and physical pain. Kids may feel anxious, angry and ashamed and experience physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomach aches. Many parents I’ve spoken to about pizza day say they only participate because they don’t want their kids to feel left out. To mitigate my kids’ potentially painful reactions to not getting pizza, I talk to them about why they’re not getting it and make sure to pack a special—albeit healthy—lunch on pizza day.
Many schools, including my kids’ school, have gone zero waste in recent years. Parents are encouraged to pack waste-free lunches, and kids aren’t allowed to throw out anything. If you send your kid to school with a granola bar and a Babybel, the wrapper and wax will be sent home. The point is to get people to think twice about buying those convenient yet wasteful snacks. But that all gets thrown to the wind on hot-lunch days.
Lots of fast-food wrapping and packaging can’t be recycled and is destined for landfill. Even though pizza boxes can be recycled as long as they’re not too greasy—in which case they can be composted—it doesn’t mean that we should be handing out thousands of them every month to kids across the country. The recycling process uses a ton of energy and releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Most kids are learning about climate change and how they can be good environmental stewards at school. Soon, they’re going to catch on that these fast-food lunches are part of the problem.
There’s another reason to be wary of all this waste: Research shows that grease-resistant fast-food wrappers and packaging may contain harmful chemicals that can leach into food. These chemicals have been linked to serious health issues, such as cancer, hormonal changes and developmental delays. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that these chemicals can “affect the developing fetus and child, including possible changes in growth, learning and behaviour.”
According to a 2019 study on food and beverage marketing in primary and secondary schools in Canada, these special lunch days are a form of unhealthy food marketing that contributes to childhood obesity. The study surveyed 154 public primary and secondary schools in Ontario, British Columbia and Nova Scotia and found that 64 percent sell branded food, primarily fast food, for fundraising purposes. The authors point out that this marketing influences kids’ food preferences, food requests and short-term food intake and fosters brand loyalty, which may lead them to continue eating the promoted products for life.
“The sale of unhealthy foods within schools raises health concerns because it promotes unhealthy dietary behaviours among Canadian children and youth, whose diets often exceed the daily recommended dietary allowances for sodium and sugar and are inadequate in fruits and vegetables,” the authors conclude. “Furthermore, the promotion of foods that are inconsistent with the tenets of healthy eating taught in schools creates contradictory messages and conflicts with schools’ mission to educate and promote student well-being.”
Ask your PAC if pizza days and other special programs are fundraisers and how much money they bring in and you might be surprised by the answer. All of the parents at my kids’ school were in disbelief when I told them it’s not a fundraiser, which I discovered by asking the PAC.
In his blog, Freedhoff shares an email from the PAC at his daughter’s school that states that 50 cents from every pizza order goes to the school. He also shares, via the principal, that the school’s pizza Mondays raise $6,000 per year.
“The bottom line is that schools truly don’t need to sell junk food to children to raise money because there are plenty of other means to do so,” writes Freedhoff. “Yes, school-sold junk food is convenient for parents who aren’t keen on making lunches every day. But given that we are literally building our children out of what we feed them and that weekly [or] school junk food sales teach kids, even those who don’t order them, that daily junk food is a normal, healthy part of life, taking the time to pack those lunches [or] is well worth it.”
Time trials in my kitchen show that it takes exactly the same amount of time to make a sandwich as it does to prepare snacks—an average of five minutes. On pizza day, you still have to pack snacks for your kids. It also takes time to create an account and place orders through the online lunch-ordering systems that many schools use. That means you’re not saving yourself much time (if any) by ordering pizza for your kid.
Every day, one-third of kids in Canadian elementary schools don’t eat a nutritious breakfast, making it difficult for them to focus and learn in the classroom. Canada is the only G7 country without a national school food program and was ranked 37th out of 41 countries on providing healthy food to kids in a 2017 UNICEF report. Only one in five kids in Canada has access to a healthy food program at school—provided through grassroots organizations, charities and provincial funding—which is far fewer than the number of kids who have access to a junk food program. While the Coalition for Healthy School Food is lobbying the federal government for a national school food program, PACs could refocus their efforts on bringing free healthy food, rather than overpriced junk food, into schools for everyone to enjoy.
Bringing people together to share a meal feeds them, physically and emotionally. However, there are healthier, more inclusive and more environmentally friendly ways for kids to enjoy food with their friends. For instance, my kids’ school recently announced a free breakfast program starting after spring break and held its first annual potluck dinner. For the potluck, families were invited to bring a dish that represents their culture. They were also encouraged to “keep it green” by bringing their own plates, cutlery and water bottles. It was a wonderful evening of trying new foods and connecting with new people—and, yes, there was pizza.