Welcome back to the newest guest contributor to TPC, Kathleen Schafer:
If someone wants an issue to be front and center in American politics—do something to make Moms mad. The Obama Administration’s latest front in the battle against obesity, is the regulation of snacks and food that are not the requisite breakfast and lunch. First up on the firing line is the beloved bake sale.
In an era of dwindling resources for public schools, bake sales are often the lifeblood of parent organizations, interest clubs and students saving for class trips. While obviously not the bastion of health consciousness, they are capable of brining in serious money for cash-strapped school with some schools reporting they were able to raise up to $50,000. So what is a regulator to do? Address the rapidly rising rates of childhood obesity or anger Moms and students alike with an all out ban?
Unfortunately, like too many issues mired inside the Beltway, this is not an either or situation. It is, however, one that requires leadership willing to address the real issues instead of dealing with Band-Aid solutions. So what’s going on here?
As much from a perspective as a Mom as well as a leadership expert, it seems most politicians are unwilling to discuss the fundamental importance of effective parenting in the outcomes for children. Regulators and advocates try to skirt this issue by addressing touchy subjects with overarching approaches that end up failing everyone. Blanket approaches are taken to address one issue that ends up causing another—or more. Preaching to families to eat healthy foods is great and if there is no culture, resources or real-life reference points to support a switch to fruits and vegetables from junk food, it simply isn’t going to happen. (Moreover, the real issue is what is going on in the lives of these families, that is the parents, that they anesthetize themselves and their kids with food, rather than opting to live healthy, balanced lives.)
So in an effort to address obesity in families that clearly needing broader support than admonitions to eat more greens, the political answer comes in the form of banning a cultural tradition that many enjoy. Perhaps the Department of Agriculture could consider the following leadership basics of building support and real-life solutions:
· Create Connections: No greater network exists than parents of school-age children. Many would agree with the basic precepts of healthy eating and encouraging that behavior in the schools and no one wants to be told they can’t do something they have always done and enjoyed. Talk with those who will be impacted by your decision before the news stories hit the stands.
· Manage the Pace of Change: While change is fundamental to life, people can only take so much at one time. Has anyone at the USDA talked to the Department of Education to find out how much money is being cut from schools? Perhaps a bit snarky, and yet, when a group is already under siege attacking a tradition can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
· Create Buy-In: Change doesn’t take place by telling other people what to do, change happens, as people are inspired to make other choices. By engaging parents and schools in genuine discussions around healthy eating across the spectrum of students’ lives new approaches and workable solutions can more easily be found.
· Engage Everyone’s Talents and Skills: One of the biggest complaints against federal regulation is the feeling that someone without any connection to a person’s neighborhood or town, is making decisions for them. If incentives were put in place to encourage local strategies what one school does may look different than another and in the end, a customized approach that creates results is much better than a blanket policy the is the target of ridicule, aspersions and avoidance.
I am all in favor of improving the quality of food our children consume and I would be the first to say a drastic decline in the prevalence of processed foods would serve everyone. The point of this article is that superficial strategies like banning bake sales serves no one. For the children that are consuming large quantities of sweet, fattening foods they will get it, if not from a bake sale then somewhere else. For families that maintain a more balanced diet and few dollars for a plate of cookies is a win-win.
True leadership evolves at the level at which the issue exists. Each school needs a vibrant, engaged parent body that is willing to examine the situation of their particular school and make appropriate “policies” for each situation. Perhaps asking for a variety of baked goods that include fruit, whole grains and other more wholesome ingredients is a good start. For others it may be including fruits and vegetables in their offering and some schools may find other ways of raising money. By taking leadership out of the hands of those who are living with the issue, we disempower the very people we need to be more engaged with it—the parents.
The solution to the problems we face as a nation will not be found, nor created inside the Beltway. It is important for each person to engage their leadership in their lives and starting by addressing healthy eating habits is a good—and easy place to do it. Let’s hope the government encourages leadership and doesn’t squelch it.
Kathleen Schafer is the Founder and President of Leadership Connection, through which she has trained individuals and organizations–particularly women and other underrepresented groups–to be effective leaders. Schafer built the political leadership curriculum, still in use, at The George Washington University School of Political Management and is the author of Living The Leadership Choice.