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Sorry, Cupcake, You're No Longer Welcome in Class

To fight student obesity, educators opt for celebratory carrots and books.

September 27, 2006|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

The days of the birthday cupcake -- smothered in a slurry of sticky frosting and with a dash of rainbow sprinkles -- may be numbered in schoolhouses across the nation.

Fears of childhood obesity have led schools to discourage and sometimes even ban what were once de rigueur grammar-school treats.

"They can bring carrots," said Laura Ott, assistant to the superintendent of Orange County's Saddleback Valley Unified School District, which this month started allowing non-nutritious classroom treats only three times per year. "A birthday doesn't have to be associated with food."

Such nutritional dictates have ignited a series of mini cupcake rebellions across the country, and Texas has led the way.

The Texas Legislature last year passed the so-called Safe Cupcake amendment, which guarantees parents' right to deliver unhealthful treats to the classroom -- such as sweetheart candies on Valentine's Day and candy corn on Halloween. Rep. Jim Dunnam sponsored the legislation after a school in his district booted out a father bringing birthday pizzas to his child's class.

"There's a lot of reasons our kids are getting fat," said Dunnam, a Democrat from Waco. "Cupcakes aren't one of them."

Whether cookies, cakes and other birthday treats at school are the culprits or not, however, the nation's children are definitely packing on the pounds.

Nearly 19% of children ages 6 to 11 and more than 17% of adolescents ages 12 to 19 were overweight in 2003-04, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Extra weight carries added health risks, as seen in the increasing childhood diagnoses of Type 2 diabetes, once considered an adult disease.

Obesity concerns led to California's historic ban on junk-food and soda sales in schools that was signed into law last year. Recent laws by the state and federal government also have prompted school districts throughout the nation to overhaul their nutrition and wellness policies.

"It is a very serious problem, and some districts are looking not only to change what is offered and sold during lunchtime, but what is being provided during" the rest of the school day, said Martin Gonzalez, assistant executive director of the California School Boards Assn.

Districts are looking well beyond school lunches: vending machines, band fundraisers, booster-club sales, treats as rewards from teachers, concession stands at football games -- and the ubiquitous birthday parties.

The crackdown on classroom cupcakes and cookies, a tradition fondly remembered by generations of parents, is often the touchiest.

"That's just ridiculous. Give me a break," said Alexandria Coronado, a member of the Orange County Board of Education and mother of a 15-year-old. "People kill for my fudge."

Although nutritionists endorse promoting healthful eating in schools, some question the logic of making any popular food taboo.

"The more you restrict these special foods -- cakes or sweets or whatever -- they become even more valued by children. It can almost kind of backfire," said Dr. Nancy Krebs, co-chairwoman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Task Force on Obesity. "You want to have a kind of pragmatic approach that sweets and desserts are OK in moderation and not put them up on a pedestal."

When the Santa Clara Unified School District began reviewing its nutrition policy a year ago, public meetings devolved into shouting matches when the staff recommended banning junk food from campus -- including high school football games.

"It got very heated," said Roger Barnes, an administrator of the 13,000-student district in Northern California.

In August, the district board decided to ban selling unhealthful food from vending machines and prohibit teachers from dishing out candy as a reward. But it granted a reprieve to birthday cupcake parties and cheese-dripping nachos at football games.

"They're trying to appease everyone," complained Noelani Sallings, who has two daughters in the district and is running for the school board in November. "American waistlines are getting larger and larger."

Los Angeles is among many neutral territories when it comes to birthday treats at schools.

"There's no central directive," said Susan Cox, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Unified School District. "We try to encourage parents to consider healthy alternatives."

In San Francisco, parents are encouraged to stock classroom parties with fresh fruit, celery sticks stuffed with low-fat cream cheese, whole-wheat pita triangles and hummus, and zucchini bread.

The Westside Union School District in Lancaster decided that all classroom celebrations ought to be consolidated into one party per month and planned to emphasize healthful food in PTA and school newsletters but decided against a ban.

"We figured we'd ease into this slowly," said Marguerite Johnson, director of educational services in the 8,250-student district.

Some schools are going further.

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