How We Manage School-Related Food Dye Exposure: Springtime Events

Apple Retro by kyz

While our school isn’t perfect when it comes to food, with our rainbow sprinkled cakes, dyed popsicles, and tater tots at lunch time…it’s better than many.  We may not have come as far as some schools like Nana Glen in New South Wales, where they did a huge additive-free test run and saw tremendous results in behavior and discipline…But at least we haven’t had any incidents like the one this week in Wyoming where 24 school kids fell ill after ingesting concentrated food coloring. 

And we follow USDA recommendations to avoid giving out food rewards in class.  We’re applying for a grant to provide a fresh salad bar in our cafeteria too.  We hosted a chef in our garden to let kids and parents sample recipes made from their own veggie harvests, and we have monthly Farm To School offerings.  I put together a food additive presentation at our Science Night, which received lots of positive feedback and spurred great conversations.  Still, we can always do better.

As Spring ramps up, our calendar fills up with endless school related events.  I’m a sucker for volunteering, too.  I know that the Room Parents are struggling to get enough parent involvement, and I love being with my daughter at school for a couple of reasons – it shows her that I value her education and her little community, and plus she’s just so much fun to be around.  Her community is pretty awesome, but there are times when I have to plan ahead for success, due to our food coloring allergies.

Sometimes I feel like an eavesdropper or spy.  I overhear conversations in stores and in school hallways (like the Trader Joe’s employees discussing how Chick-FIL-A is better for you than McDonald’s) and I can only hope that I don’t visibly cringe.  Evernote is my new best friend – and it’s chock-full of food dye related notes and news.  But I’m no food Nazi, noooo – my thighs are proof of that.  Yet I still see room for improvement almost everywhere I go.

For instance, I was asking about our school’s Field Day concession offerings last week, and found that most of the processed items contained additives that we avoid.   Lemonade (contains artificial yellow dye), chocolate covered pretzels (contains synthetic “Vanillin”), and fruit popsicles (contain artificial dyes) were being sold that day.  So, I grabbed some chocolate covered pretzels from the Whole Foods bulk bins and whipped up some TrueLemon raspberry lemonade (found in Kroger’s) for my daughter to bring in – she loved them.  The concessions volunteer said she didn’t have enough time to shop for safe alternatives when she was given the task, which I totally understand.  So in the spirit of volunteerism, I think I’ll sign up next year for concessions at events.  It’s easier to avoid dyes when you’re already familiar with what’s out there.

Photo Credit: abkfenris

I notice synthetic FD&C dyes in other places relating to school too.  Last week our child’s class had a picnic lunch on the front lawn.  Of course I peeked around at everyone’s lunches out of curiosity, trying to be stealthy enough so as not to make anyone uncomfortable.  Hot dogs and hamburgers were offered in the cafeteria that day (I’m curious to see what preservatives are in those), and grilled cheese sandwiches as a vegetarian option (I’m guessing that the cheese likely contained annatto).  Among the kids who brought a packed lunch from home, I only spotted one “Lunchable”.  Unfortunately the “dessert” in that prepackaged meal was AirHeads candy, and the kid had bright blue teeth and tongue by the time lunch was over.  I forced a happy smile while secretly worrying about what petroleum dyes were doing to that kid.  It didn’t affect my daughter, true, but I’m a mama, with mama concerns for both 1) the health of all kids, and 2) the affects that other kids’ food dye consumption and subsequent behavior will have on my child.  (My daughter brings her own lunch, by her own choice, and luckily she’s been sufficiently trained enough to avoid food coloring so she had no interest whatsoever in the dyed candy. Whew.)

There are also the special events where goody bags and gift exchanges translate into the ubiquitous temporary tattoo.  Kids love them, and why not?  If they were free of petroleum dyes, I’d be sporting a different design each week too.  As a tattoo wimp and professional waffler who has never decorated her body with anything too permanent, I can see the benefit of the temporary tattoo.  But unfortunately, they contain FD&C dyes, so we have to throw them out.  Fortunately, though, our child’s teacher is a henna artist!  My daughter wanted all natural henna SO badly. I tried it first, one week before, and I had no reactions. So we let her try, and it worked beautifully.

Face painting has proven to be a challenge for us as well.  I volunteered to do face/hand painting for our school’s multi-cultural arts fair recently.  I ordered some all-natural dye-free paints online from Elegant Minerals.  I chose several colors in two custom kits, which came with a few applicators, sponges, and glitter.  The fact that they sent me one wrong color (brown instead of red, yikes!) and that customer service never called me back, really disappointed me.  And the paints – they were just “okay”.  They were really thick and greasy, like the consistency of potted lip gloss or liquid rouge.  The darker colors were gorgeous, but all colors were hard to apply, took too long to dry, and rubbed off easily.  Those cheap store-bought petroleum face paints were looking better and better with every “dragon” I globbed on, but I knew I couldn’t go there.  The effects of any FD&C dyes in my kid’s system would take days to wear off, long after the cute cat face was gone.  I’d like to try out Luna Organics and Terra Firma next.

Spirit nights are another part of school life that can make my brain hurt.  I previously wrote about my wish for a more natural restaurant choice, and I’m so happy to report that my wish came true.  Our coordinator worked out a special night at a nearby table service restaurant that sources all of their natural ingredients locally, and makes everything from scratch.  YESSSS!  The only thing we had to avoid was the oddly out of place sprinkles on the ice cream sundae.  Many kudos to our spirit night coordinators for that brilliant idea.  By the looks of the packed house abuzz with happy children, it was a smashing success.

The ice cream social was easier – I brought a quart of safe ice cream and loads of toppings from our pantry like dye-free marshmallows (no blue dye!), rainbow candied sunflower kernels, gummy bears, Sun Drops (great M&Ms replacement) and chocolate chips that contained no fake Vanillin.  I left the remaining ice cream there for the parent volunteers to serve up to others.

Soon, we have summer camps and vacations to think about. I’ll be writing about those too…

So how do you handle school special events?

2 Responses to “How We Manage School-Related Food Dye Exposure: Springtime Events”
  1. Marsha says:

    This is a huge fear of mine! I lose sleep about school already and my son is only almost 4 yr old. He will start pre-K and it makes me so nervous to think about special events. I have already made arrangements to buy his class a play doh alternative that he can use. I plan to make cupcakes and freeze them so I can just whip up frosting when I hear that there will be a birthday party. Besides Food dyes, he is allergic to dairy and nuts.

    I pray that he’ll be accepted to kindergarten at a local charter school that makes parents sign an agreement that the kids will not eat food dye, additives, preservatives, sugar and sweeteners at breakfast and lunch. They prefer that the families adopt this entire lifestyle. They don’t allow cupcakes for birthdays. I hope that he gets accepted, they enroll on a lottery. Someone I know was 98 on the waiting list last year. I will enroll him every year until he gets in. Besides the nutritional policy, we like the curriculum they follow. I would be so excited if he gets in so it would be 1 less issue to deal with. I have worried about this since we found out 3 years ago that he had a food dye allergy. UGH!

    Thanks for all you do! I love your blog! Keep em coming!

    • Jen says:

      Hey Marsha- Where is this school and how do I get my son into it!? 😉 Sounds like a dream to me!!!

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