School district reins in excessive cupcake intake with policy

In the last few weeks, students have come home with a backpack full of the school’s rules, regulations and policies. One of those policies has struck a nerve with the cupcake crowd. The district sent home the meal service information sheet which details instructions for parents regarding meal applications, menus, payments allergies and the district’s wellness policy.

Under the policy, parents are instructed to “talk to your child’s teacher about treats for birthdays and holidays. Attached is the list of days that are exempt from the wellness policy.”  The policy lists eight holidays that can potentially wreck a child’s diet. But the biggest concern amongst parents is that birthday celebrations are limited to the first and third Friday of the month. Thus, the district encourages “stickers, books, and non-edible items as a way to celebrate.”

From the state and federal food guidelines on good nutrition, it's  too many cupcakes and too much sugar. From the district’s standpoint, eating all those cupcakes “eats” into instructional time.  

“Ideally, we wouldn't have to impose these regulations,” District Superintendent Dr. Dave Jensen said. “I go back to good old days when our cooks used to make cinnamon rolls, and we could buy cinnamon rolls, and they were a frequent occurrence across our school.  With the concern with childhood obesity, both the national and the state agencies have taken a stand saying we need to reduce sugar consumption.”

Schools are no longer allowed to sell food containing sugar such as soda or candy. Dr. Jensen says the concern is with childhood obesity. According to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) 2015-2016 brief, the prevalence of obesity among youth aged 6–11 years is 18.4%, adolescents aged 12–19 years is 20.6% compared with children aged 2–5 years 13.9%.

“We have to comply with the regulations,” Dr. Jensen said. “We're back in the position where we have to ensure we're meeting the state guidelines and they provide us with guidance and direction on the development of our plan. This isn't arbitrary on our part. This is to ensure that we meet the compliance from the state,” Jensen said.

It’s a fine balance between meeting nutritional needs, honoring students’ birthdays and making sure kids learn. 

The district’s Food Service Director Laura Jensen said the district has eight exempt days for holidays in addition to the first and third Fridays parents can bring the traditional party food. 

“We could be having cupcakes two times a week in certain months,” Dr. Jensen said. “Where do you draw the line so that you don't become oppressive, which we don't want to be but at the same time, recognizing that when you do those types of celebration, we're "eating" into ... instructional time. We do try to honor our instructional time while also honoring for those who choose to celebrate birthdays and do it in an equitable manner while still doing our best to meet nutritional guidelines. It becomes a really difficult balancing act.”

The goal, she said, isn’t to limit celebration but to come up with alternatives for celebrating birthdays and holidays. Parents are always welcome to bring healthier snack options such as fruit and vegetable plates or alternatives like balloons or stickers. 

Enforcement of the policy is up to the individual schools and teachers. She said the district’s policy has been in place at least five years but that enforcement from the district is contingent upon the buy-in from each of the school’s administrators and teachers. 

Dr. Jensen said the nutritional guidance is there for school principals and teachers to use, but the district isn’t in the business of being cupcake police. “Are there times when birthday cupcakes arrive in a classroom and we don't know about it? Yes. It's not one of those things that is going to be our focus. We provide the guidance and we ask the principals to enforce it,” Dr. Jensen said. “We ask our principals to work with the staff. But are there some exceptions or extenuating circumstances?  At times but we try to adhere to it.”

As with any policy, there are loopholes. Selling or distributing non-approved snacks and meals are acceptable if they are available 30 minutes after school officially ends. “When you start to think of our athletic events — basketball games, volleyball games — we run concession stands and they're selling candy bars, hot dogs and nachos, all the things we love. The intent of this is to restrict the sugar accessibility during the instructional day,” Dr. Jensen said. A child can even buy a Coke at a football game. 

Laura Jensen said the district holds two wellness committee meetings per year and parents are welcome to attend.