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I’m working with my daughter’s school on a project about local food, so Wednesday I stopped in for a little show-and-tell about the sort of food that grows in New York vs. elsewhere. (Apples and grapes, natch. Pineapples and mangoes, nada.) I’ll admit I had visions of doing my own Jamie Oliver-style Q&A, complete with a dramatic reveal and confused kids. But thankfully my 5- and 6-year-olds did know their fruits and veggies. Impressively so.

I got there right as the kids were finishing lunch and munching birthday popsicles brought in by one of the boys in my daughter’s class. I’m not unreasonable. I allow the occasional brightly colored junk even if I cringe the whole time and then spend the rest of the day peeling my daughter off the ceiling. Balance, right?

This time, though, I wasn’t feeling generous. Maybe because of the irony — um, fruit and veggie talk — or maybe because I’d only last week written a blog post on artificial colors. Or maybe because the kids (mine top of the list) were bouncy during the talk. (Knowledgeable, but bouncy.) Whatever the reason, it made me cranky. So later, at home after the presentation, I asked my daughter why she’d chosen the green popsicle, the only one of the choices that was obviously artificially colored. (The popsicles were made partly with fruit juice and fruit, but apparently some varieties still needed a chemical color boost.)

Turns out she’d been handed the popsicle by the birthday boy, and one of the (well-meaning) teachers had told the kids, “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.” So Tess didn’t ask for one of the (naturally colored) berry flavors that she would have preferred anyway. “And Mama,” she added, “I didn’t know it had food dye in it.”

That’s when deja vu hit. We’d had a similar incident last summer, only then the culprit was a blue ice cream bunny. Then, like now, I’d reached my limit. And then, like now, I’d written about it. So I’m going to pull out that piece (originally published in one of my regular columns) and reprint it here. And tonight I’m going to watch the newest episode of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution and try not to get too riled. We’ve got it pretty good by comparison, but the collective stakes are high.

Blue in the Face: Trying to make sense of a junk-food world


Many of us preach moderation when it comes to kids and junk food. My husband and I chose another buzzword: education. By teaching our kindergartner about nutrition and how food affects our bodies — by giving her tools to make good choices rather than simply making them for her — we hoped she’d carry the lessons through to adulthood. We figured we couldn’t easily change the world we live in, but we could change the way we live in it.


Until the blue bunny incident. Then I realized that it’s got to be bigger than us.


I’d read a New York Times article about an anti-junk food mom in Manhattan who, among other things, e-mailed shrill missives to school board members and required her children to deposit school-provided junk food into a plastic container (for her after-school accounting, one assumes). I had mixed feelings. This mom was so right about our country’s epidemic of childhood obesity and diabetes, and about how a deluge of sugar, trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup, and artificial colors and flavors has no place in learning environments. But her methods were so wrong.


So I was feeling pretty good about my own low-key crusade. Our daughter didn’t have sugar until nearly preschool. Ditto chips and all that. And we’d been offering healthful foods right along, substituting our own snacks for ones provided in school and at kid activities. But we’d done all this quietly, never telling anyone else how to raise their children, never harassing school officials.


The closest I’d come was sending a carefully worded e-mail to the director of a day camp my daughter had attended. I suggested there were better alternatives to the neon-hued ice pops the kids were getting every afternoon. The director countered that this was a tradition and that kids deserve special treats on hot days (akin to the commenter on the New York Times article who wrote that giving kids cake and popsicles is a “God-given right”).


I pushed back with a little did-you-know about how certain ingredients (like food dyes, a known stimulant for hyperactivity) affect kids’ health and behavior. But in the end I conceded that we could just as easily supply our own whole-fruit popsicles next year. End of story. No drama. No picketing outside the camp.


But then I picked my daughter up from a different day camp three weeks later. And there was the blue bunny.


She and I had talked that morning about the ice cream truck. It was an end-of-week ritual at this camp, and I wanted her to be able to enjoy it with everybody else. It’s the same reason we’re fine with cake at birthday parties and candy on Halloween and Easter. Plus there’s no quicker way to create a kid with food issues than to deny them simple sugary pleasures.


But here’s where that education thing comes in. My daughter knows that food dye is one of the things we try hard to avoid. And it’s generally easy, because though color might dazzle her at first, one bite usually makes her realize that just because something is pretty doesn’t mean it tastes good. So I asked her to pick an ice cream treat that wasn’t obviously colored. And I thought we were good.


But I forgot something. She’s 5. And bunny-shaped ice cream bars are hard to resist.


The scene: I get out of my car and hear “Mommy!” I turn, smiling. Then I’m frowning, trying to figure out what’s all over her face. Blue. It’s blue. “Did they just finish painting or something?” I’m wondering. Then there’s excited talk of blue ice cream bunnies with gumball eyes. I feel my blood pressure rise.


“What happened to no color?” I manage to ask, trying to keep my cool. “I forgot, Mommy,” says my blue-streaked daughter, already doing that fidgety food-dye dance. “I just really wanted the bunny!”


Well of course she did. What kid wouldn’t? So then I got mad. Not at her, but at the camp. At the ice cream truck. At the system, whatever that is. Why do we even have food like this available? It’s not even technically food, at least by certain definitions. But it’s everywhere in our schools, our camps, our kids’ sporting activities.


When she was tiny, I’d been fine handling these affronts. Packing more healthful snacks for preschool? No problem. Substituting almonds and whole-grain graham crackers for the lollipops handed out after her sports class? OK. Asking her to drink water instead of sugary drinks at camp? Sure.


We explained all this to her, letting her know it was OK to make choices different from other kids and hoping we were laying the foundation for when she’d be making choices on her own — like when the ice cream truck pulls into camp. But I was coming around to the opinion that our singular efforts weren’t enough.


Our daughter actually makes pretty smart food choices and has developed a palate that favors unprocessed food, so it seems to be paying off. But what about the kids whose parents don’t have time to sort this out? The ultimate responsibility for a child’s health and well-being lies with parents, but schools and other stewards of childhood have a responsibility, too, to educate themselves and read labels and take the time to offer options that are good and good for you.


When Mark Bittman, author of “Food Matters,” spoke at an event here in July, someone in the audience asked how we can ensure that children grow up to make smart food choices. Kids aren’t born craving Pop-Tarts and Cheez Doodles, Bittman pointed out. Those are learned habits, acquired tastes.


But they can be unlearned, too. Even in school.


The addendum to this story is that the second summer camp — which is run by the school my daughter now attends — has asked me for ideas not only for healthy snacks for this year, but also for recipes the kids can cook each week. For now, though, the ice cream truck stays.

Am I alone in getting worked up about this stuff? What pushes your buttons?

Update as of April 26: This week I’m entering this post in the Get the Junk Out blog carnival. Check out the link for other posts about food additives. Also see my April 2 post on artificial colors. (It’s about using Easter egg dyes to teach kids the difference between natural and artificial colors, but there’s also a lot of background information about dyes.) 

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