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Unhealthy Food at Schools

What Are We Feeding Our Children?

When my daughter started eating solid foods as a baby, I made much of it myself in an effort to start her off the best way possible. On any given day, the sound of fruits, vegetables, and sources of protein could be heard steaming and pureeing in the baby food maker in my kitchen. I breaded and baked chicken for her and diced up pieces of avocado for her. As someone who enjoys cooking, I attempted to create homemade baby foods for my child, ensuring that she got the very best ingredients. Why give a baby anything but pure, natural food?

As she ate more and more solid food, feeding her started to become a chore. Her daycare center includes lunch in the price of tuition so I considered having her eat the school lunch instead of continuing to cook, pack, and send it each day. Being health conscious, I asked the school administrator to see the lists of ingredients in the foods that they purchase from a local food service, so I could make sure the quality was up to my standards. They happily handed over a stack of papers with ingredient lists for all of the breakfasts, lunches, and snacks that they give to the tots.

As I leafed through the pages, I was horrified at the ingredients I came across. I understand that processed foods are unavoidable, but I could not believe how many of the foods contained artificial flavors and preservatives, especially foods that are meant to be nutritious and aid in children's growth. I was also surprised since the center recently switched over to providing organic cow's milk.

The ingredients in the breakfast foods stood out the most since this is the meal that fuels the body through the rest of the day. I noticed that one of the ingredients in the plain bagels is L-cysteine. My research led me to several articles, including one from, which noted that L-cysteine, commonly found in commercial breads, comes from human hair oftentimes from China. A natural source of protein?!

I was equally surprised when reading the ingredients found in a Sara Lee blueberry muffin. We all know that muffins are borderline "junk" food given their fat and carbohydrate content, but the ingredients I read about in this label made it purely uneatable in my opinion. This particular muffin contains a thickener; vegetable emulsifiers, which are food additives used to stabilize processed foods; raising agents; preservatives; oh, and blueberries too! I know that not everyone has time to go to a bakery and buy a freshly baked muffin or whip up a batch of homemade muffins, but should children consume so much "junk"?

As for the "healthy" breakfast foods in the packet provided by the school — like a generic brand of raisin bran — high fructose corn syrup is a key ingredient and a generic brand of corn flakes includes BHT added to the packaging to preserve freshness — which is listed on the University of California Berkeley's Wellness website as one of two preservatives to avoid. BHT helps prevent oils in foods from oxidizing and becoming rotten. It's categorized by the FDA as "generally recognized as safe" but hasn't been tested on humans.

Onto lunch. I was considering having my daughter's teacher give her meatballs for lunch one day but figured making my homemade basic meatballs — just beef, breadcrumbs, garlic, and other natural seasonings — would be a better choice for her new, growing body. And I was right. The meatballs provided by the school contain vegetable shortening, sodium stearoyl-2-lactyate — a supposedly nontoxic food additive tested by the FDA on rats and lambs — calcium propionate, which is a preservative often found in bread, and sodium phosphates — additives that doctors are linking to higher rates of chronic kidney disease, weak bones, and premature death. I also thought about having her eat the baked french fries — until I read that disodium dihydrogen pyrophosphate is added to promote color retention aka no brown potatoes. I will now continue to chop up and bake french fries myself, after reading through the list. Or pop some Alexia brand fries into my oven and send her off to school with a few in her lunchbag. But who has time for that? Not a working mom like me.

Each day I send my daughter to school with a snack — which always includes a fruit. The school does offer some fresh fruit for the children, but much of it comes from cans lined with BPA, and some contain added sugar. She currently eats baby crackers, but down the road when she starts eating less baby food and more regular foods, she could have crackers as part of her snack. The Keebler brand honey graham crackers that the school provides contain BHT for freshness, artificial flavor, and soybean oil with TBHQ, which according to is an additive used to preserve processed food. Ritz crackers contain the preservative sodium sulfite, high fructose corn syrup, and TBHQ.

Don't get me wrong — I also made a list of healthy and natural foods supplied by the daycare center that my daughter can eat, which include oatmeal, bananas, unsweetened apple sauce, pears, broccoli, kale, and pasta. There are certain foods I may not allow the center to give her now but may down the road — like the canned spinach, green beans, and peas — which contain added salt.

When I approached a school administrator about the quality of ingredients in the foods, I was told that they are required to take the lowest-cost service when they put the food service out for bid. I doubt most parents review the ingredients of the foods that their children are consuming — most likely they put trust in their caregivers to feed them the best way possible, just like they put trust in them to take care of their emotional and physical needs.

It's unfortunate that these types of foods are lining the shelves at our supermarkets and being consumed by our children each day. Most parents these days do not have the time or financial resources to feed their children completely chemical-free and natural foods. But being aware is the first step in conquering this ever-growing problem. Even a little step to improve your child's health can go a long way.

Image Source: POPSUGAR Photography
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