Kristin Bartkiw had one goal in mind when she sent information to a well-known health blogger about her child's daycare: To encourage Canadians to question Canada's Food Guide. She feels the federally endorsed document in many ways fails to set healthy standards for eating.
"This is something I have been passionate about and frustrated about," Bartkiw says in an interview from her home in Rossburn, 315 kilometres west of Winnipeg.
The mother of three captured media attention for what she believes are all the wrong reasons: Ritz Crackers, a $10 fine and her small-town daycare's nutrition misconception.
Her story first made headlines a couple of weeks ago when a physician revealed in his blog that Bartkiw packed her children a lunch of home-cooked roast beef, carrots, potatoes, milk and an orange -- a lunch that most people would consider balanced and nutritious.
But staff at her kids' daycare didn't think so.
So they issued her a $10 fine -- and a notice that the school supplemented the lunch with Ritz Crackers to act as a "grain," what the daycare deemed the missing food group.
Daycares in Manitoba are obligated to follow the Licensing Manual for Early Learning and Child Care Centres, which states "a supplement must be supplied if a child's lunch or snack does not meet Canada's Food Guide to healthy eating." The manual also states "registered dietitians recommend a balanced meal."
Ritz Crackers are the self-proclaimed "rich, flaky, melt in your mouth" processed snack invented in the 1930s that are loaded with sodium, saturated fat and white flour, the result of grain that has been stripped of its nutrients and left virtually fibre-less.
To Bartkiw, the point isn't that her kids' daycare chose the cracker as the grain choice, but rather that Ritz Crackers fall into the grain category of Canada's Food Guide.
"I think that's one of the biggest problems with Canada's Food Guide. It makes people think that a food is healthy when it's not," says Bartkiw, noting food-industry representatives were at the table during Health Canada's latest revision of the guide in 2007.
Kate Comeau, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for Registered Dietitans of Canada, refused to tell the Free Press Ritz Crackers constitute an unhealthy food choice.
"I would say it's a processed food choice and one that we would consider to eat less often. It wouldn't be an everyday food choice," she says.
Although the latest food guide contains a disclaimer asking Canadians to consume "at least half" of their daily grain products in the form of whole grains, the document does not ask the population to avoid white grains such as those found in Ritz Crackers, white bread or white rice.
"They're never going to say don't eat white grains because that's going to offend all the people who sell white grains," says Bartkiw, a high school biology teacher who tells her students to be leery of Canada's Food Guide.
"I don't see why there is any reason why food lobbyists should be involved with that process, but they were. It's just frustrating."
Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an Ottawa-based family doctor who specializes in obesity, shares Bartkiw's frustration with the guide.
Freedhoff exposed Bartkiw's story in his blog, Weighty Matters.
Canada's Food Guide is more important than people realize -- even if most Canadians don't consult it directly when grocery shopping or when preparing dinner -- because it's the first document public institutions such as schools, daycares, hospitals and nursing homes refer to when deciding what to include on their menus, he says.
"What it also becomes, I would argue, is our official consciousness as a nation," says Freedhoff, noting most students are familiar with the document from early on in their lives.
Freedhoff sees numerous flaws in our country's official healthy-eating manifesto. One of its main problems: the guide promotes "overconsumption" and may even lead to weight gain if followed to the letter. (For example, the guide states adult males ages 19 to 50 "need" eight servings of grain products daily.
Freedhoff also says the guide does not differentiate between healthy and less healthy sources of proteins, carbohydrates and fats.
"That's a big problem when there are big differences between the carbohydrates and fats within each group, and it's a big problem when you're talking about overconsumption in a country where it is abnormal to have a healthy body weight," he says.
Comeau defends Canada's Food Guide, saying Canadians often do not interpret it properly.
"I think one of the flaws is that people look very quickly at it -- at a quick glance without really reading the additional information that's on the food guide," she says.
And as for the criticism the guide leaves too much open to interpretation?
"Canada's Food Guide is revised frequently and this is certainly something that could be looked at for a future revision," says Comeau.
Prior to the guide's 2007 revision, it was revised in 1992 and 1982.
Robyn Avery, executive director for Winnipeg's Aleph-Bet Child Life Enrichment Program, says the guide doesn't do enough to discourage the consumption of refined grains and sugars.
Avery -- who has run Aleph-Bet for 17 years -- has a volunteer staff of cooks at her daycare who prepare, from scratch, the school's hot lunches -- something the school offers a couple times a week.
Nevertheless, the mother of two says she ensures all her daycare's prepared meals meet Canada's Food Guide recommendations as outlined in the province's daycare licensing manual. She even brought in a registered dietitian to educate her staff several years ago.
"We're really focused on the healthy eating. Personally, I try to follow the same thing at home. I know it's good for me. We're taking care of 112 children. If I don't want to put it in my body, I don't want to put it in theirs," says Avery, who along with some of her staff, often spends hours on the web researching the latest nutrition science.
Avery says the snacks and meals she serves do not contain hydrogenated oils.
Juice is also a rare sight in her daycare kitchen.
"Unless it's a couple of times a year as a treat, we've taken juice off our menu because it's like having a cup of sugar," says Avery.
As for Ritz Crackers as a grain product?
"At best, we try not to serve certain kinds of crackers, but there are very few crackers that are considered good for you, for lack of a better word. You want a certain amount of fibre. And 99 per cent of crackers don't provide that," says Avery, noting the food guide contains a "grey area" that allows for food like Ritz Crackers.
She says many daycares need training on how to avoid such nutrition pitfalls.
Michelle Hagglund, registrar with the College of Dietitians of Manitoba, says most daycares aren't like Avery's and it's unfair to expect them to understand exactly what constitutes good nutrition.
Hagglund, a registered dietitian, says her organization is considering teaming up with the group that trains early childhood educators to help them learn about proper school nutrition.
"A Ritz cracker would not be an appropriate substitute for a grain," she says.
"(Daycares) are being asked to assess the nutritional composition of childrens' lunches. It's an individual with little to no background in nutrition having to make calls like that. Dietitians do this everyday. Dietitians are nutrition experts."
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