Members of District’ 65’s Wellness Council presented a proposed draft of a new District Wellness Policy at a meeting on May 1. The draft was intended to comply with State and City law and to address or prevent the problem of food-borne illnesses, including allergic reactions to certain food, said Mary Larson and Christina Ferguson. Ms. Larson, RN, BSN, ILCSN (certified nutrition specialist) is coordinator of Health Services for District 65, and Ms. Ferguson is an environmental health practitioner in the City’s Health Department. Both are members of the District’s Wellness Council.
The draft policy deals primarily with the safety of “foods and beverages available on school campuses.” It also contains a footnote, which, based on a memo from the City, states that potlucks cannot be held on school property.
Most of the some three dozen persons who attended the May 1 meeting expressed concerns about the educational, social, cultural and nutritional values of the proposed draft policy.
An April 30 memo from Carl Caneva, assistant director of the City’s Health Department, to Jordan Ryan, nutrition services coordinator at District 65, cites the state’s Food Handling and Regulation Enforcement Act, 410 ILCS 625/3.1, which has been adopted by the City Council and incorporated into the City Code. The memo concluded that under the state statute “buildings owned, maintained and operated by public school districts, such as Districts 65 and 202 in Evanston, are not allowed to have potluck events.”
However, one District 65 parent who is also a lawyer said her interpretation of the statute is not that potlucks on public property are banned, but that they may be subject to being regulated by a state or local health department.
In response to an email question from the RoundTable on May 5, Mr. Caneva appeared to concur with that interpretation. His response suggests that potlucks on school property are not precluded by the state statute but, he says, “They would need to meet the requirements of a temporary food event. Food at these events must come from approved sources.”
Because that information was not made available at the May 1 meeting, a substantial part of the discussion dealt with the value of potluck dinners to schools and school climate. There was no discussion about the regulations governing “temporary food events.”
District 65 Board member Suni Kartha, the Board’s liaison to the Wellness Council, said, “The law is the law and … the District will comply. I am working with Senator Biss, with ED-RED [a lobbying organization that concentrates on education and school policy] to … see if, at some point there’s room to advocate to get the law changed.”
Ms. Kartha said she would research how school districts in other states comply with their food safety laws. The state of Minnesota, she said, has an exemption for schools.
Parents of kindergartners and first-graders in District 65 are asked to provide a daily snack for their child’s classroom, Ms. Kartha said. Each family provides the snack for the entire class on one or more days during the school year.
Some parents and others who attended the May 1 meeting said they felt the snack guidelines in the draft of the Wellness Policy impose onerous restrictions and clash with the District’s policy of teaching children about good nutrition and healthy eating habits.
Under the draft policy, “all foods and beverages provided by parents or staff during the school day or at school-sponsored events that occur outside the school day” must meet four criteria: They must be commercially prepared, ready to eat and wrapped in the original packaging. Fourth, a list of ingredients must be provided.
Fruits or vegetables provided by parents or staff either during the school day or at school-sponsored events “outside the school day” must be either commercially packaged or “whole and intact and, as necessary, washed/cleaned at a designated Food-and-Nutrition- Services-approved three-basin sink at the school.”
Fruits or vegetables from the school garden provided by parents or staff during those same times must be cleaned in the same way at the same type of three-basin sink or have undergone “District 65-approved school-garden-tasting procedures.”
Jordan Ryan RD (registered dietician,) SNS (school nutrition specialist) the District’s Food and Nutrition Services Coordinator, said most schools have a three-basin sink, which parents could make arrangements to use if they still wished to prepare the fruit or vegetables themselves.
A second option for fruits and vegetables provided by parents, Ms. Ryan said, is having them prepared beforehand by the District’s Nutrition Services at Chute Middle School.
Parents who opt to have Nutrition Services prepare the snacks would have to make arrangements to bring the fruit or vegetables to Chute beforehand, perhaps a day in advance, she said.
Nutrition Services would then deliver the snacks to the school. Some parents opt to pay $50 for Nutrition Services to provide their snacks for the entire year, about $.39 per day, Ms. Ryan said.
Most of those who spoke at the May 1 meeting said they preferred the snacks be fruits or vegetables rather than commercially prepared snacks. Some said the Nutrition Services option would be onerous for some families with low incomes and limited transportation options.
Ms. Larson said she agreed that the requirement is “definitely an added burden to [families].”
“I assume that if it’s a burden, teachers will exempt [those] families,” said Ms. Kartha.
One parent said, “Parents want to participate [in providing snacks for their children’s classrooms]. Some care very much.”
Ms. Larson said, “That’s why it’s so important to get the word out: People have to understand … what is available [for parents] to meet the guidelines.”
Another parent said she thought these requirements would “create a two-tier system.”
She said PTAs and other parent organizations “have had a hard time integrating parents” and indicated that the new policy would worsen matters.
One parent spoke of the “sense of pride [people here have] in a culturally diverse community – when we go to pretzels and Goldfish we deprive them of the opportunity to prepare something [they love]. We’re losing that connection, losing that opportunity for children to experience other tastes, other textures.”
“What makes me really sad is that cut-up carrots from the stores are slimy and gross; … We’re changing policy to make [the kids eat] healthy… [and now we] pull back and start giving them pretzels and Oreos,” one parent said.
“It’s going to require a definite mindset,” said Ms. Kartha.
A parent asked Ms. Ferguson and Ms. Larson, “What data do you have about children who have gotten sick from eating fruit prepared at home?”
“The charge of public health,” said Ms. Ferguson, “is not to allow an event to happen [but] to design practices to prevent a problem from happening.”
“I understand the charge of public health,” the parent continued. “Do you have any data?”
Ms. Ferguson said the City has “no data about children who got sick from home-prepared fruit or snacks.”
“We know we have a lot of stomach-aches,” said Ms. Larson, but added “You’re asking us to prove a negative.”
Ms. Hayes brought up the issue of children’s eating snacks in a classroom, which is essentially a non-sterile environment. “There are no tongs, no tables cleaned with bleach. If this document is in point of fact solely to follow the Act and keep a safe environment – why are we doing this?”
Ms. Larson said she felt that was “a good point” and said she, too, “wondered about food in the classroom.”
Ms. Kartha said the Wellness Council members “are pleased at [the May 1] turnout and that there does seem to be a lot of energy and commitment to ensuring we have the best policies and procedures to address student safety and health. The ad hoc committee that created the draft policy plans to reach out to those who signed up last night and figure out how we can best address the concerns that were raised last night (nutrition, access and community-building) in conjunction with the safety measures set forth in the draft policy and required by state and local laws.”