When the Sag Harbor School District decided a few years ago to make peanut butter and jelly the low-cost food of choice for children who, for whatever reason, arrived at school without a lunch, or money to buy one, it was with the best of intentions.
At the time, the school’s cafeteria was facing a serious deficit and the board, looking to cut costs, decided PB&J was a good, relatively cheap alternative to the full meal served to paying customers.
It is still a decent low-cost option — in theory.
However, as the old saying goes, PB&J is only as good as the company it keeps. Whole wheat bread is better than white, and natural peanut butter is better than highly processed varieties. (Though this is fuel for another discussion.)
At issue now is not the peanut butter (and the allergies many kids have to it), but rather jelly, that gelatinous blend of fruit and sugar which compliments ground peanuts so well. The jelly that had been used by the Sag Harbor School District until this year contained high-fructose corn syrup. Not unusual. Many jelly varieties do these days.
In case you don’t know, high-fructose corn syrup differs from regular table sugar (sucrose) in that it is a liquid sweetener made from corn. It has been widely used in place of sugar for the past 30 years because, as a liquid, it is easier to transport than its granulated counterpart. We also grow an awful lot of corn in this country and it has to end up somewhere.
However, according to several studies, including one conducted by Princeton University in 2010, high-fructose corn syrup may more readily lead to obesity than table sugar. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the rate of obesity in the United States has doubled in the last 20 years. Correlated or not, this is certainly cause for concern.
So, what does this have to do with jelly here in Sag Harbor?
We’re not saying that eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich will make your child obese. We’re not even saying high-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners should be banned from the school entirely. All students have the right to bring their own lunches to school, be it a hearty mix of kale and quinoa or PB&J with two cups of Smuckers jam between slices of Wonder Bread.
The issue here is the example that the Sag Harbor School District sets for its student body.
We applaud the school board’s decision last November to adopt a Wellness Policy that leaves no room for high-fructose corn syrup and fake sugar substitutes in food and drink provided by the school. While we don’t think the school should eliminate choice, we do believe it has a responsibility to offer healthy choices and stand by those choices.
They’re out there. Beverages like plain seltzer and 100 percent fruit juices are good alternatives and popular among kids. How about mixing the two to create a fizzy fruit drink? And, to its credit, the district is working to acquire healthier food items to stock next year’s cafeteria. The bidding process is a little more involved than the comparatively effortless process of buying off the state contract. But, the way we see it, the pay-off is well worth it.
Yes choice is good — and since the school has chosen to offer healthier options, we feel it has no obligation to provide the alternative. So if kids still really need that high-fructose corn syrup fix, let their parents buy it and pack it in a lunch box. That’s their choice.