Among area schools, a cupcake debate
New U.S. guidelines have Pinellas schools saying no to sugary snacks. Some parents and teachers say the rules are too strict.
By DONNA WINCHESTER and JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published August 28, 2006
[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
|Kindergartner Hailey Ott checks her goodie bag during a classmate's birthday party at Bay Vista Fundamental School. The parent of the birthday child sent in frozen yogurt for each child instead of the traditional cake and ice cream.
Sheila Gallagher can still picture the sugary confections she brought to her daughter's kindergarten classroom last year.
The two-dozen birthday cupcakes, piled high with pink-and-purple frosting, delighted Olivia, her 5-year-old. Gallagher was planning a similar celebration this year.
She was surprised - and saddened - when she learned she wouldn't be allowed to bring cupcakes for the child's sixth birthday. A new ban on cakes, cupcakes and other "low nutritional" foods in Pinellas County schools forbids it.
"I understand the thought process behind it," Gallagher said. "I'm in nursing school right now learning about diabetes and obesity. But you can't put a birthday candle in an apple."
The school district's crackdown on classroom sweets is in response to a federal mandate that required school officials to develop tougher wellness policies for this year.
Specifics were left to individual districts. Many, including Hillsborough, decided to issue recommendations rather than requirements. Pinellas officials, on the other hand, put together a 20-page plan with definite do's and don'ts.
Most parents appear pleased with some of the changes, especially the limiting of elementary school beverages to milk, zero-calorie flavored water and 100 percent fruit and vegetable juices. But some parents are clearly miffed at the rule that limits cakes and cupcakes to three events a year.
Some principals aren't happy about it either.
"I think it's good to be healthy, but I think we're losing sight of the bigger picture," said Debi Turner, the principal at Blanton Elementary in St. Petersburg. "Chances are, these kids aren't having cake every night at home."
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In the past few years, school districts across the nation have found themselves grappling with the difficult issue of student nutrition. Some have made changes because they thought they should, others because the federal mandate gave them no choice.
The result has been a smorgasbord of dictates.
School officials in San Francisco allow sodas and chips for classroom celebrations but strongly urge nutritious treats. The Des Moines, Iowa, school district bans sugared sodas and candies but still allows cupcakes and cookies.
The Hillsborough County School Board, meanwhile, adopted a wellness policy in July with clear goals: Schools should find ways to reward students with something other than food and drinks. They should emphasize nonfood items, or at least healthful foods, in fundraising activities. And their celebrations should shift the focus from food to the child.
How has that translated to the classroom? Hardly at all, it appears.
Some teachers continue to give candy to students who perform well in class. Parents are still bringing cupcakes and cookies to celebrate birthdays or other special events. Any moderation comes from individual decisions and not from a districtwide effort, though officials sent out a memo last week advising principals of the wellness policy and suggesting alternative rewards for good behavior.
Michelle Mayfield, president of two Hillsborough school PTAs, said she welcomes any attempt to give children healthier choices. The PTA does its part, Mayfield said, by favoring fruit trays over cookies when providing treats for children.
"Sometimes when the kids get rewarded, that (candy) is the first thing they look for," Mayfield said. "It is a problem."
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When the Pinellas school district began crafting its wellness policy more than a year ago, it turned to the community for help. Officials formed a task force that included doctors, parents and members of volunteer agencies. They asked teachers, students and administrators what they thought should be done.
"What they shared with us was that they did not want us to eliminate unhealthy foods," said Lisa Ross, who coordinates the school district's portion of a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services grant to promote healthier living. "What they wanted was more of a variety of healthy foods, so that was our focus."
The district concentrated on the four components outlined in the federal mandate: nutrition, education, physical activity and other school-based activities, such as hand-washing before and after children eat.
The restriction on cupcakes and cakes to three annual events falls under the nutritional component. The new elementary school guidelines also eliminate fried foods and limit sugar to 30 grams per 8-ounce serving.
In middle schools, the policy limits french fries to three portions per week and reduces servings of carbonated beverages from 20 ounces to 16.9 ounces. French fries must not exceed 4.5 ounces per serving in high schools, and students may only purchase one serving at a time.
Ross acknowledges that there are significant obstacles to overcoming unhealthy habits. Financial realities, for example, make radical changes difficult.
"Cafeterias are still serving cookies a la carte," she said. "The main reason is because cafeterias have to be self-sustaining, and that is where they make their money."
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While some parents are upset over the ban on "low nutritional" foods for classroom celebrations, others welcome it. Teachers, for the most part, applaud it.
Jennifer Smith, a fourth-grade teacher at Bay Vista Fundamental in St. Petersburg and the mother of two elementary school children, said kids are as happy with a new pencil or a packet of stickers as they are with a cupcake or a cookie.
She also said she agrees with the district's efforts to move away from using candy as an incentive. When she needs to barter for good behavior, Smith said, she prefers the lure of extra computer time or no-homework passes.
Veteran teacher Alyce Scott says it's more about the recognition than the reward. Scott, who teaches first-graders at Sutherland Elementary in Palm Harbor, said she has always felt uncomfortable rewarding children with sweets.
"We teach nutrition," she said. "It seems ironic that you could teach a nutrition lesson, then shove a cupcake within an inch and a half of a child's face."
But in the long run, emotion may override logic - and science - when it comes to the cupcake-in-the-classroom ban.
After the Texas Department of Agriculture announced a crackdown on junk food in schools, parental outrage led to the "Safe Cupcake Amendment" of 2005. The state held fast to its other nutrition guidelines but abandoned its attempt to do away with birthday confections.
Pinellas parents could mount a similar revolt.
"Cake is so symbolic in our society," said Heidi Akers, an area coordinator for the Pinellas County Council of PTAs and the mother of two young boys.
"When you go to a wedding reception, you wait for them to cut the cake. When someone moves into the neighborhood, you bring them a cake. It's how we share a little bit of something sweet and wonderful."
[Last modified August 28, 2006, 01:14:03]
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