Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Risk Management: Seeing the Wood for the Trees

In case you haven't heard about Joel Salatin before, he is a hero to the organic farming movement.  Not only a charismatic speaker, he claims to be a grass farmer.  In fact, he owns a farm that produces highly prized free range chickens, eggs, cows and pigs, and he makes good money doing so.

This little vimeo clip is specifically relevant to this blog, because of the comments he makes towards the end about the underlying causes of the problems in our food system. Joel claims the government's overarching belief with regard to managing risk in the food system is that sterile = safe.

Thus highly processed sugary breakfast cereals are given the go-ahead, but tomatoes grown with organic compost are regarded as potential sources of toxicity.

This is something I see all the time in our schools, where our local school board is resisting the creation of school gardens.  For the past two years, they have been working on a policy to ensure the safety of students.  For example, they are grappling with the issue of washing all produce before eating it, because dogs may have peed on it.

Meanwhile, our children face numerous examples of suboptimal food choices all the time, with little political will to put a stop to them.  Yet, cumulatively, these poor food choices lead to long term health problems which somehow don't factor nearly as much into the risk assessment models.

For example, my children's teachers regularly use candy to reward good behaviour, and we see parent councils serve serving sugars and highly refined carbohydrates at school fundraisers.  Parents, quite correctly, in my opinion, are free to pack whatever they like in their children's lunch boxes.  However, when I look at what children bring to school, I am constantly saddened by the high percentage of processed and packaged foods that most children eat at school every day.  It rubs off on my children too, who sometimes wish they could have packaged granola bars or tetrapack sugary juice boxes.

Take a look at Joel's video.  He puts his finger on the crux of the problem:  a healthy food system is not sterile.  It's natural and alive.  Conventional food and farming policy aims to reduce risk, and this, paradoxically, is the source of much of the risk to our food system.

The conventional food system misses the wood for the trees.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Parental Cognitive Dissonance

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff is a Canadian physician who runs a popular blog named Weighty Matters that looks at issues surrounding overweight.  This morning I was intrigued to see a post discussing the issue of junk food offered for sale at track meets.  We are in the middle of track meet season at the moment, and with two children competing in our district finals later this week, it's a subject that is close to my heart.  It is highly likely that hot dogs and sweet beverages will be on sale and my children will ask me for a couple of dollars to buy their lunch.

Ontario introduced provincial legislation in 2010 (also known as PPM150) restricting what may be sold at schools.  In my opinion, the legislation doesn't go far enough to restrict sugar and refined carbohydrates, and focuses far too much on restricting fat and salt;  however, it's a start.

While this legislation is fairly toothless in reality, I'm motivated more by my desire to be a good parent than as an upholder of the law in my opposition to what I see going on in my childrens' school on a regular basis.

In my opinion the execution of this legislation falls far short of what could be done.  Many of the parents on the parent council of our school don't feel nearly as strongly as I do about good nutrition.  When they organize school events, the koolaid jammers and hot dogs tend to creep in.  The teachers also frequently use candies, pizzas and freezies to reward good behaviour and academic achievement.  I have often heard poor food offerings rationalized away by comments that there's nothing wrong with giving children a treat from time to time.

I'm painfully aware that this is a delicate situation.  It's embarrassing to teenage children when their parents continuously challenge the majority opinion.  I am also conscious of not wanting to drive a wedge between my children and their teachers, who have a difficult job to do, and who spend many hours every week with their charges.  I don't envy them their job and admire the fact that they are able to control such large groups of children, many of whom have behavioural issues that can make classroom control quite difficult.

I probably also have more time than they do to read and think about subjects like childhood nutrition.  It's quite possible that many of my kids' teachers simply haven't considered the harms of sugary food to the same extent that I have.

So my approach is to be careful. I volunteer a lot of my time and have helped coordinate many school fundraisers that involve innovative food offerings that easily match the spirit of PPM150, and just as important, are crowd pleasers too.   I am not afraid to speak up from time to time, though sometimes my approach is simply to not participate in fundraisers I don't believe in.

Big Food's strategy to counter legislative restrictions is to form fake grass-roots organizations designed to appear to support consumers' freedom to choose for themselves.  New York's recent push to limit soda portion sizes, for example, was framed by the beverage industry as a libertarian issue.  I am not optimistic that common sense and nutritional standards will ever win out against the relentless marketing efforts that children are exposed to without legislation to curb Big Food.  Yet at heart, I am drawn to libertarianism as an ideology, and the industry is aware of this dichotomy.

It occurred to me that there is a certain cognitive dissonance in our school system.  We can probably all agree that our kids should be allowed treats from time to time.  But surely we should be the ones to decide when and how to do this, not other parents or teachers?

It would be a better idea if children were exposed only to uncontroversial food choices at school or at school sponsored events.  Let parents decide for themselves when and if to give their children sugary and processed treats.

Healthy food certainly can be delicious.  Done properly, it can be cost effective and lucrative too, but it takes a little more imagination to put it together.   Rather than resisting healthy offerings, why don't we, as parents and teachers, spend that energy planning better options?  There is a learning curve, but I do know from experience that it can be done.