This post is about my quest to bring healthier nutritional habits to the children, staff, and parents of Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD). It is a story that is still in the making as my work is not yet done, but I thought it would be worthwhile to talk about how it began for me and how it’s progressed during my first year of taking on what turned out to be an all-encompassing task. I naively approached this task thinking that many things could be done in months but it quickly dawned on me that this was a multi-year effort.
My journey began in late 2010 when out of curiosity I bought The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss. I became fascinated with his weight/fat loss hack of simply removing all sugar and white carbs from your diet. At the time, I was semi-retiring from my Ironman triathlon racing as my son had just been born. With race pressure off, I had time to experiment with my training, one aspect of which is nutrition. By eliminating all sugar and white carbs, I discovered my first aha! in nutrition which is exercise matters little in weight/fat loss when you haven’t dialed in your diet, and that sugar and carbohydrates in our society’s diet has an outsized effect on your health.
Moving forward from this discovery, I dove deeper into nutrition. I joined the ranks of biohackers and the quantified self community, reading tons of educational material and performing experiments on myself. What happened if I ate this, or stopped eating that? How do I measure the results? How do I get blood tests done without a doctor’s prescription and how do I interpret the results? It was through this process that I realized that many of the root causes of obesity and other non-communicable diseases all stemmed from the prevalence of things that we are eating too much of and not enough of the stuff we should.
Fast forward to 2015 when my son entered Kindergarten at PAUSD. My first experience of a kindergarten program was of a class that had birthday treats brought in by parents that were often candy and sweets, and when holidays were experienced, there was often cooking to celebrate and I saw more of the holiday’s treats being served. This alarmed me to see so much sugar being served in the classroom, and I approached the PTA and principal on this issue. I was shocked to find that at PAUSD, there were scant or no guidelines across the district on limiting sugar at all.
And thus began my journey to institute change at PAUSD in the areas of healthy nutrition. It’s been about a year since I started working on these issues. As accomplishments, I’ve raised awareness, held one educational event, and managed to get commitment to add celebration, fundraising, and rewards guidelines into all the elementary school handbooks.
Becoming an activist in a school district along with its community was an interesting experience and I continue to learn! Here is a list of things I learned along the way:
Always be respectful of people and DO NOT lose your cool.
When I first approached the principal, I expressed my concerns in a calm and professional manner. My intuition was on high because I knew that the principal must get bombarded by parents with both rational and irrational notions all year long. I could sense that this issue had been touched upon before because she pointed me to some celebration guidelines in the elementary handbook. She also was helpful and pointed me to contacts in the PTA and higher up in the PAUSD organization.
Seek advice from previous parents.
It is highly likely that somebody has tried before you; learn from their advice and mistakes. In talking around the school community, there had been many who came before me who have tried to tackle the sugar issue. I managed to get introduced to many of them and got them to sit down and tell me how they approached the issue, get some historical basis on what they tried, how they approached it, and how it went.
I learned that in the past, parents felt that they were too aggressive or overzealous which put school officials and other parents on the defensive. This reinforces my first point to stay cool and approach arguments in a rational, orderly fashion. I also got the sense that their own busy lives prevented a commitment to really figuring out how to get something like this done.
Be prepared with supporting materials. Be also prepared to find indifference and disbelief to your “facts”.
Before approaching the principal and PTA members, I put together a quick presentation summarizing some of the key research that is out there on sugar’s effects on both adults and children. I tried to keep it as unscientific as possible, which is pretty hard since I referenced research studies. Ultimately I think I came up with something that was fairly easy to read.
However, be prepared for a cold or indifferent, or downright negative, reception to your “facts”. I have encountered two types of people.
The first take a look at the deck and then glance away as if they don’t have time or don’t want to read it. Why would someone do this? Aversion to complexity? Dismissal of information they consider irrelevant? Lack of trust of the deliverer and his/her information? All of the above? Something else? Your guess is as good as mine.
The second group have preconceived notions from their past on what they think they know about sugar and nutrition. They discount everything else except what they already think they know. In the scientific world, we call this “arrogance of knowledge” where you already think you know everything there is to know about something and refuse to learn more.
I am not sure what to do about the first group except to advise not getting frustrated with these people and to keep moving forward. Remember to keep your cool!
On the other hand, the second group is influenced by information that is floating out there already. Despite the confusing morass of nutrition information out there, I believe that there is no better time in history than now to advance this effort as the new families I have met are much more knowledgeable on this subject than parents who have come before them.
Respect as a platform for buy-in.
There are two sides to respect. The first is respecting that there are other opinions on everything about life, including what they think is good nutrition. It is not likely that you will be able to change their opinion on sugar and nutrition unless you are a notable figure in the medical and nutrition community. Still, you do what you can with whatever supporting materials you can put together.
However, in working on this issue, I find it strange that a well reasoned argument with supporting data on sugar and nutrition doesn’t move the needle, but a respect platform does.
What do I mean by a respect platform?
By respect platform, I mean that every parent has one thing that they will let no one else touch, and that is they will never let anyone interfere with the parenting of their own children.
So how does a sugar issue relate to a parenting issue and the institution of guidelines?
My argument became less about sugar’s negative health effects but rather that school needs to be neutral with respect to sugar, and food overall. To be neutral means removing food from the classroom (with certain exceptions: food is part of the curriculum, food is medically required, etc.). By removing food, we eliminate the conflicts that are brewing from a parenting standpoint, where one parent might be ok with their children eating sugary treats and another is working hard to remove sugar from their children’s diet. Once a parent brings a platter of food to the classroom, there is effectively permission given to the children that it is ok to eat it, especially if teachers and parents both encourage it. My argument, therefore, became that if you didn’t want your child to eat something, how do you otherwise exert control over something when you are not present to take action? The only and best course of action, therefore, is to just take food out of the classroom.
By the way, this also solves a number of other existing and brewing issues that relate to food allergies, which I also added into the proposal.
Do facts lose always? Not if backed by authority recognized by them.
I had one thing going for me and that was the fact that the American Heart Association has finally put out a statement on limiting sugar for children. This is significant; one of our major trusted health organizations has finally put a guideline for sugar and limited it to 25g per day for children aged 2-18, and ZERO grams from 0-2 years of age. It has enough authority that people find it hard to argue against.
Get involved at the school: join the PTA
Every school has a Parents-Teachers Association. Join it. There typically is a Health and Wellness chair. Take that chair position or work with the person there.
Note that I would strongly recommend taking the chair position. Efforts such as these take a long time and require a lot of time from the stakeholder. Many parents before me have tried to advance these and other issues by trying to hand off something to someone on the committee. I can tell you that it rarely works. Parents are already busy. They don’t have time to take on someone else’s crusade. They may not even believe what you believe or think it’s important. This means…
If you want to see this happen, you must be willing to commit and work on it yourself.
There was a parent who showed up at one of our Student Wellness Committees who had a project she was working on. She had enough energy to get this project piloted at her child’s school and felt that it was important enough to go district-wide. After presenting it, I got the feeling that she hoped that someone at the committee would just take on the task of spreading it across the district.
Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that.
I think you’ll find that there are many initiatives at any school committee. School officials will be concerned mostly about initiatives that come down their chain of command, and parents’ initiatives will be driven by their own self-interests. Likely no one is present at these meetings because they have nothing to do; they are there because they already have an agenda to advance.
This is why it is best that if you have a project to get done, you should allocate time and energy to drive it yourself.
It is why I joined the district’s Student Wellness Committee and took a co-chair PTA Health and Wellness district-wide position this coming year.
Once you set yourself going on this project…
Be patient and have a long time horizon like YEARS.
It literally took me all year to:
1. Figure out how things work. The school’s charter SAYS the school partners with parents to create a great experience for their children; however, it doesn’t say exactly HOW this is supposed to happen.
2. Find the key decision makers. How does the organizational structure work at PAUSD? Who is in charge of what? Who can make things happen and who can’t? The principal wasn’t even sure how to get these things done. However, she was good enough to introduce me around to various committees and councils (whose full function I could not divine) and I had to network my way to various places and people to figure how who could really help me. Suffice to say that I was pleasantly surprised to find a lot of support generally around the district in both parents, teachers, and administrators.
While I could detail out what I found at PAUSD, it will likely be different for each school. PAUSD has evolved to each school being extremely independent, which presents many challenges for getting things done across the district. I have heard that many other districts are completely the opposite and everything is driven from the top down, which would make for a different experience in getting things done.
Another three things to watch out for, which also lengthen the time to get things done:
1. Be wary of the changing of the guard at both the PTA and school. PTA committee heads are strictly volunteer and will change each year. Someone who supports your initiatives this year may exit a committee and then next year there could be someone who doesn’t care who you are or what you are working on. There are also budget issues at PAUSD which has caused some changing of staff members.
2. Watch out for the winter holidays and summer vacation. Everybody disappears and when time gets near either of these two times, people tend to stop communicating. So whatever you work on and how you do it, target your schedule around the work cycles that schools have and don’t get frustrated when things stop for the summer months. It is also why I advise having a time horizon measured in years since the actual time you have per year to get stuff done is amazingly small.
3. School organizations are and are not like corporations. You will have to set your expectations accordingly given their own pace of operating, as well as be mindful that there are a ton of other internal priorities that supersede this project.
Get involved! If there is a Student Wellness Committee, join it! Make allies and gain support.
The principal did point me to the district wide Student Wellness Committee which is made up of staff, parents, and other members in the community such as pediatricians, city bike safety officials and the like. There, I met some key personnel within PAUSD who had a sympathetic ear. In fact, one of them worked at a hospital as a social worker before and recounted how there were so many children who were diabetic in disadvantages populations around the San Francisco Bay Area, all caused by poor diet that was laden with sugar. The staff have been instrumental in helping to get the work done, approved, and pushed through the PAUSD organization.
So what did I do at a detail level? Create guidelines for school websites, celebrations, fundraisers, and rewards.
These are the main areas for creating guidelines.
School websites – our school websites are often places where policies are posted. So a general statement about keeping food out of the classroom is appropriate here.
Celebrations – birthdays and holidays (ie. Thanksgiving, Halloween, Valentines Day, etc.) are the usual suspects.
Fundraisers – for some reason, people think bake sales work better than auctions. Encouraging not to sell sweet edible items is a good thing and just part of the overall behaviors we want to encourage and model. Note that the school and PTA both run fundraisers and guidelines need to go to two different places, with lobbying and discussion to happen in each place.
Rewards – it is discouraging to hear that there are some teachers who have a jar of candy or licorice sticks on their desks and give them to students when they do well.
Writing these guidelines would have been a monumental task had it not been for those who had walked this path before me. We actually tried and got into this back and forth on what language we should use and how we should say something and it was very hard to get to agreement. Then I had an epiphany to google for these documents on the internet and, of course, there were examples out there. We were grateful for KCHealthyKids.org and the Connecticut State Department of Education for allowing us to use large amounts of their text in our own guidelines. Specifically, these were KCHealthyKids.org’s Healthy Alternatives for School Celebrations, Rewards, Fundraisers, and Snacks and CT State Department of Education’s Alternatives to Food Rewards. Of course, their language was crafted much better than ours and was immediately acceptable to all of us.
If you’ll recall, I mentioned getting these guidelines instituted throughout the elementary guidebooks. Note that celebrations are really only relevant for elementary schools as I think you would find it rare to see someone celebrating a birthday in the upper grades.
Rewards unfortunately can span the grades. It is disheartening to see that educators need to resort to food based rewards, typically candy and sweets, in order to motivate their students to do well. It sets a very poor precedent by encouraging children to associate food and its accompanying sensations to performance in school and life.
Be aware of the division of the day and when certain entities are in control of activities and not.
As I developed the guidelines, I became acutely aware of when the school has jurisdiction and when not, and when other parties like the PTA, outside organizations like after school sports leagues or art classes, or the public drives activities.
For example, the school only has jurisdiction during school hours. So any guidelines that the school manages would only be enforced when classes are held.
30 minutes after the last bell rings, the school becomes public property and the administration there can no longer control what happens on campus. There are after school activities which may serve snacks to children. The PTA may hold an event after school such as fund raisers or celebrations.
So while I developed the guidelines, I also had to keep track of not only who they needed to go to but also the time in which they are enforced. Here is a short list of who needs which guidelines, and potentially modifications on how they are instituted:
Fundraising, celebrations, general statement, rewards.
If you get into Food Services and what gets sold and served by then, the day gets even further divided up into class time and when Food Services provides meals. At PAUSD, breakfast and lunch are served in elementary school. Food Services became a third entity with whom I have gotten involved.
Launch educational opportunities.
I consider education a key part of these initiatives. Without true understanding, any guidelines we create may be interpreted as being dictated without reason. The community, both parents and teachers, may still do whatever they want despite having published guidelines. They could become rules without substance.
Therefore, I think it is critical that information gets out to the community about the dangers of sugar, that healthy eating habits start from early childhood, and that the absence of healthy eating habits leads to chronic diseases that are appearing now in childhood years, whereas before they only appeared in adults.
Last year, I found a speaker associated with the now defunct Institute of Responsible Nutrition here in the SF Bay Area. She gave a great talk on sugar and its effects and had some great tips for parents and taking sugar out of their households. We attracted 35+ people to the night and parents even brought their children to hear the talk. This coming year I hope to do more talks on the topic of sugar as well as expanding to healthy eating in general.
Institute Board Policy changes to give more top-down authority to these guidelines.
One or two principals were questioning whether there was board level support for these guidelines. Board Policy changes would cement the initiative into something much more official.
It took some research to figure out which Board Policies are relevant to nutritional initiatives involving sugar.
In California, these are Board Policies 3550 Food Service/Child Nutrition Program and 5030 Student Wellness. At PAUSD, these turned out to be out of date and not updated to the latest from the California School Board Association (CSBA): 3550 Food Service/Child Nutrition Program and 5030 Student Wellness.
Board Policy 5030 is driven by PAUSD’s Student Services Coordinator who runs the Student Wellness Committee.
If you take a look at the CSBA Board Policy 5030, on page 3 it specifically states:
The nutrition education program shall include, but not be limited to, information about the benefits of healthy eating for learning, disease prevention, weight, and oral health. Nutrition education shall be provided as part of the health education program and, as appropriate, shall be integrated into other academic subjects in the regular educational program, before- and after-school programs, summer learning programs, and school garden programs.
Education is a big part of my initiatives. Now it would be a mandate.
Then on page 4:
The Superintendent or designee shall encourage staff to serve as positive role models for healthy eating and physical fitness. He/she shall promote work-site wellness programs and may provide opportunities for regular physical activity among employees.
Note that I am not only considering children in my initiatives, but also parents and teachers/staff as well.
On page 6:
The Superintendent or designee shall encourage school organizations to use healthy food items or non-food items for fundraising purposes. He/she also shall encourage school staff to avoid the use of non-nutritious foods as a reward for students’ academic performance, accomplishments, or classroom behavior.
School staff shall encourage parents/guardians or other volunteers to support the district’s nutrition education program by considering nutritional quality when selecting any snacks which they may donate for occasional class parties. Class parties or celebrations shall be held after the lunch period when possible.
These last two paragraphs directly support the guidelines I am trying to get implemented! In many ways, I should have gone for Board Policy modifications immediately.
Board Policy 3550 is driven by PAUSD Food Services who is responsible for the sourcing of all school food provided and sold on school grounds.
This next year I intend on spending more time with Food Services and influencing the continued and increased appearance of natural, healthy foods that are less processed and contain less sugar.
Lobby the School Board members, get their advice
As I worked with the PTA and the district-wide Student Wellness Committee, I also sought out the School Board members to gain their support.
Soon we will be taking the Board Policy changes to the School Board and want to make sure they are on board so giving them some background information beforehand is a good thing, and so they do not need to think all that much about it when the changes are proposed.
At PAUSD, there is a Board Policy Review Board where all Board Policy changes are dealt with. Two of PAUSD’s Board members are on that committee and my goal is that, with some initial communication, the changes will be accepted fairly quickly.
The Board members also provided me with excellent advice on how to get things done. This was at the Board level as well as through the school organization and its staff. We talked about potential roadblocks and barriers and how to navigate around them. They also gave me a rich set of contacts from which to get advice (example: there was a woman who managed to get a very broad project done similar to this one), what the personality is at a given school (example: at our middle schools, it will be more effective getting the parents on board, so go to the PTA head and start there), and who else to contact (example: contacts in the school staff and student government for the middle and high schools).
I have a huge list of things I would love to get done. Having one year of taking action under my belt, I look to accomplishing these items for the coming year:
1. Make sure the elementary school guidelines are in place.
2. Figure out and start executing a strategy for putting guidelines in place with the PTA, notably in the areas of fund raising and education.
3. Figure out strategies for tackling the middle and high schools. Make contact with the key individuals: parents, teachers, students and determine a game plan.
4. Spend more time with Food Services and work with them on the Board policy as well as how to better examine bringing healthier food across the district.
5. Continue my push into educational opportunities for parents, teachers, and students. Network to find more speakers willing to come talk about sugar and its dangers, healthy eating, and things families can do to bring healthy eating to their homes.
For those of you reading this and wanting to create change at your own school, here are some final thoughts:
1. Do not depend on email – it is amazing how easy it is to be ignored. Be persistent at getting a meeting with decision makers, up to and including showing up at where you know they will be.
2. Don’t be afraid to embrace and enact change!
When I met with some of the parents who tried before me, they would talk about how there was a lot of resistance on many fronts.
Yes it is true that many parents who have come through the district before you are like that. However, in a few short years, those families will graduate their kids and not be involved in district affairs any more. I can tell you that the up and coming parents’ attitudes are changing. The new families coming into the district are much more enlightened on the subject of sugar and healthy eating habits.
When I first started this initiative, I braced myself for strong resistance from all directions. In reality, I was shocked to find way more support for what I was doing.
I think there is an undercurrent of not rocking the boat, or fear of drawing conflict and ire from others. I would urge that you may be pleasantly surprised that there are more parents who have the same feelings that you do. I certainly was.
And yes my long term horizon will mean that I and my initiatives will outlast the opposing parents whose children will eventually graduate and leave the district.
Start small and build bigger. Trial one school. Then rally and move to 2-3. And so on.
While I took on getting things done across the district, it doesn’t have to be that way for everything I worked on. For example, I have the best connection with the elementary school that my children are at, and thus am working on the parents, their attitudes, and the activities over there first.
Whenever I have a success, it is just one more piece of evidence that I can bring to other schools and their organizations. So starting small to pilot first is a good idea, and it will help you grow them from there.
Think evolutionary; look for revolutionary opportunities.
Peoples’ attitudes rarely change overnight. Don’t we all wish that when we tell somebody something that they just believe it and everything is fine? It almost never happens that way.
I found it valuable to be evolutionary whenever possible. So wording in the guidelines is often “encourage” versus “shall”. My goal in the short term is to raise awareness by simply inserting the ask for alternatives and making people realize that we don’t have to do things the way they were before, and that things like bake sales can be done differently – think auctions or other fund raising options – and that celebrations can be done with non-food activities.
But I continually look for revolutionary opportunities. I consider the Board Policy changes to be revolutionary and a powerful lever to those in the district who fear the consequences of violating them. I also consider the announcement from the American Heart Association on limiting sugar for children a significant revolutionary development, that can sway opinions without argument.
Last Word: Lead with Love.
I was listening to an excellent podcast featuring Danielle Gould, a food futurist and founder of Food + Tech Connect. Towards the end, she talks about leading with love. I think it’s a fantastic concept and totally applies to this effort.
Leading with love sounds like a hippie statement but it’s just really about your attitude as you approach people and the problem. It means coming from a viewpoint of caring, and that you want the best for both adults and especially the children. It means to be inclusive, to embrace your opposition, to look at things from their point of view and bring them into the fold versus alienating them. When you treat people with respect and that you value their viewpoints, you have a better chance of bringing them on board.
Whenever I talk about sugar and nutrition here, I emphasize that all I work on is because I care for *all* the children in the district and not just my own. It isn’t for me or my ego or something else; it’s that I do not want to see these children growing up and developing one of the many chronic health conditions we see today. When others throw negativity back at me for what I work on, I remind myself to lead with love because it’s the only way to win by bringing the opposition onto your side in their own time and way. Going toe to toe with someone only makes the other party dig in deeper and harder in defense.
So suppress your initial defensiveness or rising anger at those who just don’t seem to listen – instead, keep a gentle, unyielding pressure on them and they will turn around. In the end, love wins.
Stay tuned for Year 2!
Many thanks to members of the PAUSD PTA who have joined me on this journey to bring healthier nutrition and habits to our district. This really is a joint effort and I look forward to working with more parents on moving this forward. Huge thanks go to the PAUSD Student Wellness Committee and Board members who have been instrumental in giving great advice and pushing this forward through the organization, and a great thanks to the principals of PAUSD who have jumped on board to implement healthy guidelines in their schools. Mentioned previously, a huge thanks also goes to KCHealthyKids.org and the Connecticut State Department of Education for their help on developing the guidelines and special thanks to the staff of KCHealthyKids.org for helping edit this post and give advice on successful advocacy.