Ask most any kid: Birthdays are synonymous with cupcakes. But families in Edmonds School District, a suburb of Seattle, have been told they can no longer bring birthday treats to school. Instead, parents are encouraged to distribute appropriate alternatives, like stickers and pencils.
That's right, pencils.
To be expected, some are poking fun at the cupcake ban and blaming first lady Michelle Obama’s healthy eating initiatives for messing with a harmless tradition. Yet many Edmonds parents applaud the new rule — because it's healthier for kids, and because it lets parents avoid the stress of being expected to provide dessert for the whole class.
Erin Ornes, an Edmonds parent of two boys, remembers when her oldest, now 11, was in first grade and she couldn't afford a birthday party: The classroom celebration was very important to her son.
She understands that childhood obesity is a major problem. But she worries that encouraging parents to substitute crafty birthday alternatives for cupcakes will only fuel the social media “mommy wars.”
“It’s bad enough to see who made the best cupcakes or who just stopped by the grocery store,” says Ornes. “But now to see who makes the best non-food celebration? Low-income families and single moms that really don’t have time to think or deal with this will have the hardest time.”
Edmonds is just the latest district to ban sugary sweets in an effort to fight obesity. Similar bans are in effect at some schools in Kalamazoo, Michigan; Boulder, Colorado; Louisville, Kentucky; and Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Bans on homemade treats bring peace of mind to parents of children with allergies. Melissa Dobrich, who has a daughter who is severely allergic to peanuts and will start school in several years, says she wasn’t previously aware of all the precautions a parent must take when a child is highly sensitive to an allergen. “I don’t want to spoil everyone’s fun,” says Dobrich. “I just want a safe place for my daughter to learn.”
Edmonds parent Deandra MacMillan supports the school’s cupcake ban because her 12-year-old son has a weight problem that keeps him from cardio activity. “More than once my kid has come home after eating two birthday treats a day,” says MacMillan. “It’s frustrating to try to retain some control and realize it’s a losing battle.”
According to DJ Jakala, Edmonds schools spokeswoman, who also serves on the district’s wellness committee, the cupcake decision is only part of a broader health program. Staff, parents, students, community members, and vending machine suppliers, she says, spent 18 months debating various aspects of the Agriculture Department’s standards to provide healthy food options in schools before reaching their conclusions. The federal government doesn't regulate treats from home; individual schools and school districts make their own decisions on what kind of snacks are allowed.
The same conversation is happening across the country. Many schools are finding that nutrition goals run smack into the economics of extracurriculars. Starting this fall, in dozens of states, new federal requirements prohibit traditional brownies and cupcakes at bake sales.
In Edmonds, Jakala says, the district decided to allow only USDA-approved "smart snacks" in vending machines and at fundraising bake sales, and the school district is trying to find ways to minimize the inevitable cash shortfall for student clubs and activities.
"I am delighted that I will never have to bring another food item to school. Delighted. Really and truly,” says Diane Mooney, an Edmonds parent of three, ages 13 to 22. However, she's worried that the healthy snack policy will hurt her 17-year-old daughter’s ability to raise money for the Associated Student Body for events like prom and spirit weeks. “These kids pretty much fundraise for the entire school,” according to Mooney, and now the teens can’t sell things like muffins and hot chocolate.
While parents may scoff and kids may mourn the lack of sweet treats, experts say food at school does make a difference.
“People need to understand that the entire food environment of the school matters,” says Marlene Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, whose children’s Connecticut school district has prohibited birthday treats to make schools healthier for a while.
“It’s not fair to say to the food service providers that they are not allowed to sell candy and soda but then say it’s perfectly fine for 30 parents to bring in cupcakes for the whole class 30 times a year.”
Rather than fight the changes at school, she says parents should back them up at home. “It’s important to be consistent about nutritional values and for everyone to give students the same message about healthy eating,” says Schwartz. “Children are being exposed to multiple sources of empty calories. It all adds up and makes a real difference.”
Jacoba Urist is a journalist in NYC, who covers health, education and gender issues. Follow her on twitter: @JacobaUrist