You may have heard of Keenan Shaw, the 17-year-old student at Winston Churchill High School in Lethbridge Alta., who got suspended this week for selling contraband soda pop on school property. This freckle-faced, glinty-eyed teenpreneur stocked his locker with a case of Pepsi, a beverage banned under the Lethbridge School District's new nutritional guidelines (only diet pop is allowed). Hawking his wares at an undisclosed markup, Shaw sold out in minutes and pocketed a tidy profit, only to pour it into more cases of pop, which he promptly sold the following day.
School administrators didn't think his enterprising scheme was so sweet. They gave Shaw a warning, and when he refused to heed it, they suspended him.
"I thought it was a joke. I didn't know they could suspend me for selling pop," Shaw complained to a reporter after the fact. His mother was also indignant, saying that while she understood the need for rules, suspension seemed a bit harsh. Besides, she liked the idea of her son "being an entrepreneur."
Bracketing for a moment the fact that actively praising your child in public for selling banned substances probably isn't the wisest parenting strategy, let's look at what's actually going on here.
For as long as I can remember, high school cafeterias were essentially the nutritional equivalent of a red light district – scary buffets of Tater Tots, gravy fries and quivering Jello bowls, with an obligatory platter of overripe, untouched fruit at the cash register.
Things are much better now, in the post-Jamie Oliver school-lunch age. For one thing, schools these days have "nutritional guidelines," and they actually pay attention to what kids are eating. With any luck, this means offering students food that might be good for them, or even culturally interesting, as opposed to providing them nothing but processed crap.
Look, I'm all for sustainable-fish curry and quinoa in schools (what self-respecting bourgeois mother wouldn't be?). But I do get unnerved when I hear about certain foods being "banned" on school property.
This is because I grew up in a house where junk food was anathema. There was a single tin of heart-shaped spelt ginger snaps my mother kept on top of the fridge and my sister and I were allowed one each after dinner, but that was basically it. Even our peanut butter was the oily health food store kind that came from a grinder.
As a result, I spent most of my late childhood obsessed with sweets. I'd comb the sofa cushions for spare change and sneak off school property at lunch hour to buy candy at the corner store. Back at school, I'd lock myself in a bathroom cubicle and feast on gummy worms and Fizz Whiz until my brain tingled with a glucose rush. My friend Amy, who had a candy dish on her coffee table (always full!) and pop in her fridge, thought my obsession was weird. "Why don't you just come to my house after school and have a Sprite? We get it in club packs from Costco," she'd say. And I did. But for me, that wasn't the point. Sugar was verboten, so the pleasure was all in the sneaking.
Which brings us back to the enterprising young Shaw and his Lethbridge soda-pop racket. Is it actually possible that Winston Churchill High is to blame for creating the market that led Shaw to his entrepreneurial heights in the first place? By banning bad food, do we make it more alluring to our children, not less?
Not necessarily, says my old friend Ceri Marsh, co-author of How To Feed a Family, a book based on the popular cooking-with-kids blog, Sweet Potato Chronicles. In her view, bans on junk food in schools should be mandatory – like seatbelts and smoking laws. "It's no exaggeration to say that when it comes to the dietary health of North American youth, we are in the middle of an outright crisis," she says. "Sodas and garbage food are hugely to blame for that. Kids can get them, and they will get them. They just shouldn't be able to get them at school."
Part of the problem, Marsh explains, is that we live in a culture that, for half a century or more, has normalized fast food and candy as regular stuff to eat. "Instead, we should be teaching our kids to be more discerning, to actually enjoy and be interested in real food that tastes good – and to see junk as a very, very occasional treat."
The numbers are well-known but still startling: A third of Canada's five- to 17-year-olds are "identified as overweight or obese" according to Statscan. So proponents say schools have to be part of the solution. Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, founder of Ottawa's Bariatric Medical Institute, told The Globe that research, including a 2010 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed school-based programs can reduce child obesity rates.
I agree in theory, but I wonder about the execution. One major problem with a junk-food ban is it's not always clear which treats should be classified as "bad" and which are okay for our kids to consume. I know plenty of parents who would much rather see their kids drink an occasional sugary drink than a diet one filled with artificial sweeteners.
What we should be working toward is a culture in which junk food is understood to be unhealthy, but is neither glorified nor demonized. A world in which enterprising opportunists like Keenan Shaw simply wouldn't be able to find much of a market.