Jelly in a Jam at Pierson

Posted on 25 April 2012


By Claire Walla

Before showing a Power Point presentation on unhealthy eating habits and the rise of obesity in the United States last Wednesday, Sag Harbor Elementary School parent Susan Lamontagne dropped dozens of bite-sized chocolates onto the wooden table where board of education members sat facing an uncharacteristically large crowd. The candies fell to the table with loud thuds, causing board members to lean back in their chairs.

“This is just to show that I’m not totally against this stuff,” Lamontagne explained as a disclaimer before proceeding with the rest of her presentation, which outlined what she referred to as a health crisis in the United States.

Lamontagne attended the April 18 board meeting, along with a handful of other Sag Harbor mothers, including youth sports coordinator Allison Scanlon, Barbara Kinnier of the Wellness Foundation in East Hampton, and Barbara Clark, a member of the school district’s Wellness Committee. The mothers came en masse to speak out against a proposed revision to the school’s relatively new Wellness Policy, which was unanimously adopted by the board in November.

“If you reverse the current policy, you’d be moving backwards on an issue that every other school is moving forward on,” Clark said.

“I feel very strongly that we should keep [the Wellness Policy] as is, even strengthen it,” Scanlon added. “Any measures to allow food and beverages back into the cafeteria that contain high-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners would be detrimental to students and staff.”

The board was set to discuss changes to two specific paragraphs of the newly adopted policy, which were proposed by board member Sandi Kruel.

Rather than strictly limit the presence of “non-nutritive” sweeteners like sucralose, saccharine and aspartame — which the current policy now does — the revision suggests those items be sold “at a minimum.” Similarly, it suggests foods containing hydrogenated or trans-fats or high-fructose corn syrup — also barred by the current policy — “only be sold at the school if another product cannot be substituted.”

More specifically, the discussion seemed to hinge on jelly and diet Lipton Green Tea.

Kruel said she was first made aware of issues with the current Wellness Policy when a parent complained that her daughter, who is diabetic, doesn’t have any drink options in the cafeteria now that the Wellness Policy is in place. The student used to drink Diet Lipton Green Tea, which contains artificial sweeteners and is therefore prohibited by the school’s Wellness Policy.

According to Kruel, failing to provide more sugar-free drink options — beyond water — for children with diabetes is essentially a form of discrimination.

“We have vegan options and gluten-free options,” she said, comparing diabetes to certain other dietary restrictions. “I’m not asking for Diet Pepsi,” she continued. “But to tell someone to just drink water is kind of pompous, if you ask me.”

Furthermore, Kruel said she pushed for more leniency regarding high-fructose corn syrup because the school’s chef recently expressed concern over the fact that he’s technically unable to serve the school’s “no-cost” lunch option — a peanut butter and jelly sandwich — now that high-fructose corn syrup has been prohibited. It was one of the main ingredients in the jelly he had been using.

[District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto said in an interview this week that he spoke with the school’s chef and made sure that peanut butter sandwiches (without the jelly) and apples could be substituted for PB&J.]

“I don’t think we have the right to say absolutely no to everything,” she added. And for this reason, Kruel said the main issue is that students need to learn how to make educated choices. “I teach my children: everything in moderation, because you’re just not going to be able to walk into an IGA or King Kullen and not find high-fructose corn syrup.”

School Board President Mary Anne Miller would agree on one point: that education is a key component to fostering the health and wellness of students within the Sag Harbor School District.

However, she and Kruel fall on two very different sides of the green-tea-and-jelly debate.

Miller, who was responsible in large part for crafting the new wellness policy, firmly believes that the strict elimination of ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners is non-negotiable.

“I am opposed to revising the policy because I don’t think we should lower the bar, I think those things can be dealt with,” she explained. “These are not challenges to me, and I think we can get around this without limiting choices.”

She said the problems posed by green tea and jelly can be mitigated with more creativity and careful planning when it comes to purchasing. Though it takes time to search for more healthy items, and they may not be as cheap as fructose-filled jam, she added that the school could certainly buy a jelly made without high-fructose corn syrup, as well sugar-free drinks that don’t contain artificial sweeteners.

According to the district’s Business Director Janet Verneuille, the school district is currently in the process of bidding out food items for next year.

“Our intent is to include a jelly product that meets the district’s required specifications as part of this bid for the 2012-13 school year,” Verneuille wrote in an email. “We are optimistic that a vendor will win the contract to provide the desired jelly product at the lowest price to the cafeteria.”

The shift in the school’s approach to health and nutrition would bring about a “culture change” that Miller said she always anticipated when she sat down to write the Wellness Policy — she never expected these changes to be easy.

However, she continued, the obesity epidemic in the United States is so pervasive that making these blanket changes, in her eyes, is non-negotiable.

“This is an issue all over the country, school districts are trying to raise the bar with regard to health and wellness,” she continued. “I don’t think we can not do it.”

As she stood before the members of the Sag Harbor School Board, Susan Lamontagne pointed to slides depicting information gathered by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Obesity in the United States has doubled in the last 20 years, she said, and the instance of diabetes has tripled.

She picked up handfuls of candies and dropped them back onto the table, causing more “thuds,” as well as growing alarm among board members, for whom the candy was getting too close for comfort.

That was her point.

“We’re surrounded by this stuff!” Lamontagne exclaimed. “It makes all of us parents who are trying to do the good thing look like the bad guys.”

“I commend you for the changes we’re already making,” she continued, voicing support for the district’s current Wellness Plan. “It’s so vitally important that we have healthier foods in school, without high-fructose corn syrup.”

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11 Responses to “Jelly in a Jam at Pierson”

  1. Cassandra says:

    Personally I think only water and milk need to be offered, both of which are diabetic friendly.

  2. Kara G says:

    How about teaching children how to be responsible human beings who are capable of making their own decisions. The school shouldn’t have to ban certain foods because parents don’t know how to teach their children to make reasonable choices, or can’t trust them to do so on their own. Just because you don’t want your children eating certain foods does not mean you should have any say over what other people’s children eat. YES, the obesity rates in the U.S. are outrageous, but that’s not because these high fructose and corn syrup foods exist, it’s because people are completely irresponsible when eating them. I’m glad I got out of Pierson when I did!

  3. Russell says:

    What an utterly ridiculous waste of time! Sugar is sugar, whether it comes from corn or not. Banning corn sugar and sugar-free sweeteners like Splenda and Equal will not reduce obesity. In fact, if you get rid of sugar-free alternatives, you just might increase it. Parents should model good dietary behaviors rather than telling other people’s children what they can’t have or ramming superstitions about processed foods down their throats. For God’s sake, let them have a Diet Green Tea! It won’t hurt them, and just might put them in a mindset to learn something.

  4. Didi says:

    Unfortunately like Russell the majority of people are clueless to how BAD HFCS and artificial sweeteners are. Whole foods, whole REAL fats are actually very good for us. We’ve just been brain washed to believe the opposite.

  5. Angela81 says:

    Lets feed kids what one committee wants and tell the rest to bring there own food but make sure there is a variety of vegan, and organic food, and hope some can even afford it. And Didi not sure there is such a thing as whole foods in the cafeteria there is no oven most of the food is frozen and packaged but lets not serve jelly to a child who might have forgotten their lunch. Why not try a healthy diet beverage like Zevia or, I am sorry just give them bread (whole Wheat of course) and water, please make sure your children don’t go to any other events or stores anywhere where the committee or state hasn’t banded such products, because you don’t want your child to be put in a situation that they have to eat it or make a responsible choice.

  6. Didi says:

    I hear what you are saying about the oven, and yes it is a challenge, but we have to start somewhere. I believe it is possible to find frozen/packaged food that does not contain excessive sodium, artificial flavoring, sweeteners, HFCS. We want to set the education bar high, why not follow through and do the same with the foods that are offered in our schools, and yes school events. We are doing our children a huge disservice, it may not be popular, but to bad, eventually they will thank us. And what is wrong with water?

  7. Angela81 says:

    I totally agree with you, start teaching at home, lead by example and have the school encourage these lifestyles, raise the bar but be realistic and start slow and there is nothing wrong with water, do they sell only water?, or other products for other children like Green Ice tea box’s or Snapple,or Gatorade, why shouldn’t children who have a medical condition or just a choice to have that same right,,because someone says so, I bet if it were thier
    children they would feel differently, these policy’s need to accommodate all children not those of a committee or a board.

  8. Didi says:

    Angela I believe fundamentally we agree:) The challenge is how to go about it. My son is at Pierson and if the only beverage choice was water I would say great! My son would complain and say how unfair it is, and my response to him would be tough, the purpose of drinking is for hydration not to dump excessive amounts of sugar in your body. He hears it all the time at home.
    I agree policies need to accommodate all children but at what cost? Their health?
    There is a great video/doc called “hungry for change” Very eye opening. It is one of many that are reteaching the truth about the foods that we consume and how we have been lied to by the almighty medical establishment.

  9. Karen says:

    What happened to bringing a nutritious lunch from home?

  10. Seen It says:

    Proper diet should me taught at home. Years ago there was no cafeteria. I and everyone else brought their own lunch from home. I personally would have my children stay away from high-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners. But they can make an educated decision themselves.

  11. It’s not like one side is for jelly and one side against. And it’s also not about big brother, personal responsibility, the way it was when you grew up, or anything like that.

    It’s just about health and what we’ve learned over the last 30 years. The school can find a vendor who provides foods that meet our wellness criteria and they should. If it involves a little red tape, so be it. The kids deserve only healthy food options while in school.

    Outside of school, bombarded by advertisements from Coke, McDonalds, etc they’ll have the chance to make their own educated decisions.

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