Parents Ask K-L District to Clarify Wellness Policy: 'Let's Dial Back the Sugar'

Some parents at Katonah Elementary School say there is an inconsistent application of the wellness policy when it comes to celebrations at their school.

A group of 15 parents from Katonah Elementary School loved the second grade teaching team’s policy of no birthday treats served in the classroom. They loved it so much they wrote to the third grade teachers to ask them to continue the practice.

When they were turned down, they approached the principal, Jessica Godin, saying there was an inconsistent application of the district’s wellness policy, which encourages healthy food to be served at school celebrations.

“Last year, my second grader had just as much fun in school on his birthday as he did when he had cupcakes in school,” Sara Weale said at a recent school board meeting where parents were invited to share their opinion. Instead of treats, each child received a commemorative book created by his classmates on his birthday.

The changes in how teachers treat food and celebrations from year-to-year can cause strife at home, can be stressful for parents and seem to go against the health curriculum, which imparts the values of good nutrition, according to other parents who signed the letter.

The district’s wellness policy was created in July 2006 after federal law established the requirement for school districts that participate in federally funded school meal programs. The policy includes goals for nutrition and physical activity, eliminates the use of food as a classroom reward and “suggests” that food served at school celebrations follow the guidelines for food served in the cafeteria—low in refined sugar, not highly-processed, and without trans fats.

However, it's not mandated. The language stipulates that "with respect to such events, these guidelines and the consideration of healthful alternatives are not mandatory, all members of the school community are encouraged to follow these guidelines and the consideration of healthful alternatives in order to help the District create the environment described."

To read the policy in full, click on the pdf copy posted with this story.

What’s most frustrating is how the guidelines are interpreted and implemented, said Jocelyn Kester, a holistic health counselor and mom of one child in the district.

“In the first grade, it’s treats galore—from “Star of the Week,” to birthdays to “Zero is Our Hero” day,” she said, citing instances when kids would receive treats sometimes four to five times a week.

“It’s hard to learn and pay attention after you’ve eaten sugary foods—it’s not just about the cupcake, it’s about the big picture. I allow treats at home and I’d be OK with a happy medium, having them once in a while at school.”

For Laura Beth Gilman, the differences in how teachers treat food and celebrations from grade-to-grade can cause stress at home. The mother of four said she celebrates her children’s birthdays with parties at home, but they’re centered around the person and not the food served.

“When you have more than one child, it can be stressful to decide what to bring to school—one is allowed to have treats, the other isn’t, and you don’t want your child to be judged for bringing in something healthy when other kids may not,” she said.

When asked for comments for this story—if the district would provide direction at the building level on implementing the wellness policy more uniformly, among others—officials issued a statement via its public relations firm, Syntax.

“In terms of providing direction for the policy’s application, the administration encourages event organizers, whether they are school staff members or parents, to take each event as an opportunity to introduce healthy options. The Wellness Policy asks that healthy alternatives be considered, however this is not mandatory,” it reads.

In their statement, officials said they “remain cognizant of the mixed concerns and beliefs of parents regarding food served in the classrooms, however, no changes to the policy are anticipated at this time.”

Godin said she and her staff continue to explore ways to take a healthier approach to celebrations and traditions involving food and are implementing modifications to provide healthier snacks this year. (The statement in full is posted with this story.)

For some parents, the district’s position suits them just fine.

Sherrie Goldstein, a mother of one child at KES and one child at the middle school, said she didn’t mind the teachers making the decisions about in-class celebrations.

 “Whatever works for their teaching style is OK,” she said. “I’m in favor of healthy eating and my kids are good eaters. But a little sweet to celebrate is what kids want to have—they don’t associate celebrations with carrots. A treat at school can be followed by a well-balanced dinner at home.”

But the signatories of the letter are hoping for a more substantive review. Weale said helping children develop healthy eating habits is important, especially in a country with high obesity rates, and hoped the district would consider taking an inventory of celebration practices.

School board President Mark Lipton said while the board sets policy, it is enforced at the building level. The policy committee, which Lipton chairs, is currently in mid-review of all 9,000 district policies and expects to get to the one on wellness this year. They review them in numerical order, he said, but one potentially could be pulled out for a priority review if the board deemed it necessary.

Kester said some cohesion from the top down would be helpful, and had a hard time understanding why anyone would be opposed.

“These are mainstream ideas, given our obesity crisis—Michelle Obama is out there, promoting healthier eating. We’re not saying get rid of the cupcakes and serve kale juice every day. All we are saying is dial back the sugar.”

Editor's note: Sherrie Goldstein's name was originally printed as Bernstein. We regret the error and have fixed the copy.

Resident October 07, 2011 at 08:50 PM
My child has a serious medical condition and in elementary school, we did not allow him to eat anything that was brought in by other parents. Did it suck for him? I'm sure it did. Did he cry and complain that life was unfair? Sometimes. Is he resentful now that he couldn't eat cupcakes with the other kids in 1st grade? I don't think so. But life goes on, and now that he's in the upper grades, he knows what he can and can't eat and chooses to eat healthy foods on his own. Our solution was to drop off non-perishable, healthy snacks with our child's teachers at the beginning of every school year, and at every party, he would eat those snacks instead. On the occasions that we had advanced notice, we would prepare a special snack for him to take that day. Every teacher that my child ever had was more than accommodating with our request. I hope people are aware that this is an option.
janice weiss October 08, 2011 at 12:33 AM
Wow......some of you have very level headed comments. Teachers are very careful about food allergies and are mindful of children never sharing their snacks and food. Special foods are brought in and the children who need to have them are great about understanding their needs. I love the once a month policies many teachers have elected to adopt for birthday celebrations. I am extremely upset that the BOD was consulted to tackle this "junk" problem, that's what principals do! KLSD has many serious issues to tackle and loss of funds from the state, so teachers and support staff continue to be cut to make the budget. Wake up and pay attention Katonah - Lewisboro parents and be aware of what your Board of Ed is doing, go to board meetings and participate in the decision making.
Ross Revira October 08, 2011 at 11:19 AM
These comments are a microcosm of what is going on in America today and you wonder why the country is in the condition its in?
Sue Rukaniec October 10, 2011 at 04:03 PM
I sat at my desk reading the article and responses early this morning. It is now almost noon and I can't stop thinking about it. I too have children who went through KES (one in high school and one in the middle school). I also have one in 5th grade. It has only been in my younger child's classes where they have changed the policy of birthday "treats". It varied each year depending upon the teacher. As much as I emphasize with all those who want their children to eat healthy (and so do I). Birthdays for the kids are special. They really enjoy celebrating their special day with friends and classmates. I have been in many classes where there were children who couldn't eat certain things. The teacher always notified us. Either the parent sent in a snack for their child on that day or I would also call the parent (as I always make the treat for my kids) and give them the list of ingredients and change as need be. This year in the 5th grade the kids celebrate the birthdays once a month. All the parents bring in a "sweet treat", a "healthy treat", plates and napkins. As much as my child "REALLY" wants to celebrate his birthday with his own treat on his day, he is ok with celebrating with the others who share his month. I think it is a good compromise. It really is about the kids. I grew up with MUCH more treats than I give my kids, but a celebration is a celebration and what is a birthday to a kid without a treat?
Katoner October 10, 2011 at 04:19 PM
I have an idea... how about no recognition of birthdays in elementary school? I don't mind a teacher having a celebration for Zero Hero day (or whatever it is called), which is related to academics, but why do 5th graders need to celebrate each other's birthdays? This isn't pre-school; they're not three. Not trying to be a Tiger Mother (see book by Amy Chua), but are 4th graders in Japan or China using school time for birthday parties? How about closer to home, like Horace Mann or Hackley?
merrymom October 10, 2011 at 08:52 PM
Now there's a brilliant idea! No celebration of birthdays in addition to the school mandated policy that no one ever mention Christmas or decorate any part of the school for it. In fact, Hannukah is off the list also. Kwanza? As if. What has happened in this world when we police snacks, cancel the birthdays and openly refuse to learn about another culture through literature, music and art? How does this make us more tolerant? Look around you. Perhaps you will notice. No one is tolerant of anything that falls out of their narrow paths of personal beliefs any longer. A little off topic? Yes, but this is a slippery slope. If you do not want your kids indulging in another's birthday treat-- 20 times a year at most, teach them to say "No thank you, but have a wonderful birthday and thanks for thinking of me." You are the parent so take responsibility for your child and raise them as you see fit.
D.S. October 10, 2011 at 10:45 PM
You are right on Merrymom......people have taken it upon themselves to think they know what is best for everyone else. I believe it's a control issue...Everyone has to have the same of everything, nobody can be different, think different....we are teaching our children in little league that everyone is a winner and everyone gets a trophy......I wonder why those same parents aren't making their children share their A with the kid that got an F....a little off topic as well but it is unbelievable to me that people put their two cents into someone elses personal life and think it's ok....they need to come to the realization that what other people do doesn't concern them.....I agree that we as a nation have no tolerance anymore... They want to create a world where there is no individualism...everyone is the same.....Let kids be kids and go get a hobby......it's not just junk food making kids heavy...it's lack of parental responsibility also.....how much outside activity does your child get....how much couch time do they get in front of the TV or Video game.......quit trying to police the rest of us because you are too lazy to do your job.......!!!!!!!
Ann Sangermano Hermann October 11, 2011 at 01:48 AM
100% agree. My children are in a different school district but I grew up in Bedford Central and I don't remember getting Jolly Ranchers and Lollipops as a reward in school or weekly cupcakes. Parents should really take a look at how much junk and sugar their child is really consuming in a day. At our school a child can purchase two ice creams as their snack at lunch. They may have that, the special sweet snack you packed them, a cupcake, and some candy during the school day. Excess sugar and processed carbohydrate sweets is not good for development or learning. Schools should focus on education and promote good healthy eating habits. Also I always had a half hour of recces in elementary school. Recess for my children depends on the teachers and they can have 5 minutes to all of it taken away if they speak without raising their hand or forget to have a paper signed. Children need the opportunity to play and be active during their school day. Wellness is very important to our schools and our children need our support in ensuring a healthy classroom environment.
Sara Weale October 11, 2011 at 02:19 AM
As the original commenter to the BOE, I would like to take a moment to provide some background information. I attend BOE meetings as often as I can because I think that it is important to stay informed of what is happening - especially when it comes to the budget. However, I am not a frequent speaker during the public forum part of the meeting. I attended the meeting on 9/29 and commented on the wellness policy at the urging of a KES administrator who understands that this is a controversial issue (the comments above underline the polarizing and somewhat vitriolic nature of this issue) and suggested that perhaps the BOE could provide some clarification to the policy which would help increase the consistency with which the wellness policy is applied at KES. I altruistically believed that in speaking up and asking for clarification and leadership on this issue from the BOE/DO that it would help the KES administration work collaboratively with classroom teachers (for whom I have a great deal of respect) on this issue. I thought that my statement which simply recognized our second grade team for making a bold (and controversial) decision about birthday celebrations for the sake of our students' wellness and suggested that there is a great deal of inconsistency between classrooms about how the wellness policy is interpreted. I did not request that all sweets be banned from our schools or that children not be able to celebrate their birthday with a treat. (CON'T)
Laura Beth Kerr Gilman October 11, 2011 at 02:23 AM
I actually agree with what you are saying, but somehow I think we are on different sides of this debate?
Laura Beth Kerr Gilman October 11, 2011 at 02:27 AM
It would be interesting to see how many of us commentators remember celebrating birthdays in school when we were kids. I can tell you that I attended 3 elementary schools (in different districts) as a child (we moved around a lot, and no, my parents were not in the military) -- and I never celebrated a classmate's birthday in school. I am 42, by the way....
Sara Weale October 11, 2011 at 02:33 AM
(CON'T) Since comments during the BOE forum are public record, the PATCH picked up on my comments by watching the publicly available video of the BOE meeting. If you watch the video, you can verify the veracity of what I state above -- as well as note that I am not a seasoned - or comfortable - public speaker. I was up there because I was trying to provide support to the KES administration as they seek to interpret and apply the wellness policy in our school. The PATCH aptly recognized that my comments about sugar in school could make for "good ratings" by creating a situation where many would be commenting and sharing their opinion on this polarizing issue. I do maintain that schools have long played an important role in educating children about good nutrition and that helping children to develop healthy eating habits is more important than ever since our country is facing a public health crisis due to rising rates of childhood obesity. I would like to see our elementary schools more closely model the "Great Body Shop" wellness curriculum taught to our children -- which teaches that it's OK to have sweets in moderation. Our elementary schools can "walk the walk" by being more mindful of the frequency and types of classroom treats given to children. Numerous studies show that kids learn better when they eat foods high in nutritional value. At KES, there are definitely teachers who are thinking about wellness-and I think that they would also appreciate clearer guidelines.
Lisa Buchman (Editor) October 11, 2011 at 02:49 AM
Certainly this topic has engaged a segment of Patch readers, which I suppose can be interpreted as "good ratings," but more importantly, the conversation reveals thoughtful perspectives. And that is why I picked up on Sara's comments—where she also mentioned that the school principal, who is new to the district, suggested she ask the school board about the policy. If you read through all of these comments it's a fairly even split among those who think it shouldn't go any further than this story and those who question not just policy, but practices in classrooms. I hope these conversations continue among parents, PTAs and classrooms across the district.
Sara Weale October 11, 2011 at 02:54 AM
(CON'T)I also think it is important for taxpayers to understand that the extent of the BOE's time spent on this issue was the TWO MINUTES that they spent listening to my comments during the public session. The BOE did pass a wellness policy in 2006 as required by the federal government & has made positive changes over the years in the food that is provided by the district's food service vendor. As I said before, it seems that at the building level, interpretation of the wellness policy is inconsistent-& I was simply making a statement to assist the KES administration in gaining some clarity from the BOE/DO. Although I am grateful for the exchange that this article has provided, it is disappointing to me that some commenters did not seem to read the article to understand that NO ONE is advocating taking sweets away from school birthday celebrations. From a societal perspective, I really wonder why this is such a polarizing issue-does anyone have any thoughts on it? Like Laura Beth, I don't remember celebrating my birthday in school at all in the 70s/80s-and I attended 2 different elementary schools-one upstate and one local. I certainly celebrated with sweets with my family at home-just as we do with our kids now. When I think about the amount of sweets my kids have consumed courtesy of attending school, I just don't think it makes sense if we are trying to teach good nutrition in school. Just curious as to why people seem to have such strong feelings on the subject.Thoughts?
Janet October 11, 2011 at 03:04 AM
Deborah, You write, "Oh would these parents go get a life....Have you ever heard of moderation. Too much time on your hands......And the practices you have in your house should stay there....quit shoving your beliefs down everyone elses throat" Are you aware of how hypocritical you sound? I'm thrilled you enjoy twinkies, but leave it in your home. And about "having too much time on your hands"...uh, ironic? None of the parents quoted i the article said sweets should be banned. And, as far as I know, they didn't draft the district's wellness policy either.
Sara Weale October 11, 2011 at 03:08 AM
Hi Debra - I was trying to make the point that the school policy which prohibits children from sharing snacks with one another because a student's food should come from home can't truly co-exist with the reality that students are given food not from their home on a regular basis in the classroom. I am not saying that children should never be given food that's not from their home -- but you have to admit that there is some hypocrisy there. If the former policy was meant to protect kids with allergies, why not just single them out for not being able to share snacks? I'd like KES to take a look at what's happening at each grade level and come up with a consistent policy towards all celebrations which also remains consistent with the wellness curriculum taught to our students.
Laura Beth Kerr Gilman October 11, 2011 at 03:29 AM
Merrymom -- wow, you are getting razzed up. All holidays are celebrated at KES -- our administrative staff faithfully adorns the front office with festive decorations all year 'round! Our art teacher makes sure the halls are decorated with seasonal projects by the children as well. Our kids learn about so many cultures -- too numerous for me to rattle off here (but, I'll give it a try, to give you an idea...) -- the official list would probably impress you. Our school embraces literature and music and art from all over the world -- in all grade levels. From the first grade studying and performing dances from around the world (African tribal dance, Oh Hanukah, Russian dance -- and I forget the other one) to Kenya and China being studied in third grade (complete with a visit to Caramoor), to our children learning songs from all over the world in music class, etc....(many of these programs being paid for by our PTO and not taxpayers, by the way)... I don't want you to get the wrong idea about our school. As for your last paragraph.... I just don't think that would ever happen in a classroom -- can you imagine a kid actually following through on that? I know I have a hard time turning down sweets, no matter how much I know they don't agree with me -- and I am 42... I was taught that it is bad manners to turn down food that your host offers you. I recently found out I am diabetic and I am learning to deal with this issue as an adult, but that is another issue...
Laura Beth Kerr Gilman October 11, 2011 at 03:43 AM
Hey Sara -- you are one of the most involved and caring individuals I have met at KES. I admire you and I want to be more like YOU. Thank you for putting yourself out there and speaking up. This IS a good and fruitful dialog. Some people might not understand what you are saying and why you are saying it, but I think most people do -- even those who might disagree with you. YOU GO GIRL!
Laura Beth Kerr Gilman October 11, 2011 at 04:05 AM
Why be insulting? I know it is sometimes hard to read "tone" on comments, but your comment comes off as such to me. Of COURSE we ALL have serious problems our loved ones are facing. Don't get me started on mine! ;-) (No, seriously, don't.) We, OF COURSE, are lucky to have our lives here in Katonah. I think we ALL KNOW THAT. We are involved in our communities, and most of us care about global issues as well. We care about our schools and our kids. We live in a democracy. You have been reading this thread and have felt the need to comment along with the rest of us. If you now feel it is a waste of your time, maybe you should stop reading the comments...
Katoner October 11, 2011 at 04:23 AM
MerryMom made a great point about Christmas and I want to re-consider my comment suggesting we shouldn't celebrate birthdays... we should, but only Jesus'. Seriously, he's the most important person (sort of a person, sort of a God -- you know what I mean) ever born, so if there's one birthday we should celebrate it is his. Of course, if we're going to celebrate his birthday in school, we need the teachers to explain why his birthday is so important, which means explaining how he's responsible (through his disciples) for the great and only Christian religion, how he died for our sins (if he hadn't died, we couldn't have been saved, something like that), and how he's going to come back and you don't want to be a non-believer when he does, etc. All the good stuff. Should make for lots of great moments back home ("Mom, guess what I learned about today... Are we going to hell? Can you help me with my homework about eternal damnation?"). It will be a great birthday party for all the kids and, since it will be the only one of the year, the schools should definitely have cupcakes for it.
Debra Brandwein October 11, 2011 at 10:54 AM
Katoner- satire, right?
Ross Revira October 11, 2011 at 11:27 AM
Another reason for getting the Katonah water plant on line as soon as possible.
John Craig October 11, 2011 at 08:31 PM
Sara, Thanks for commenting directly. I want to see if my understanding from the article and your comments are accurate: -You first went to the 3rd grade teachers with a request to maintain the same "parents send in healthy birthday treats for the entire class" policy as your child had in 2nd grade. (Maybe it was just you or maybe a group of 15 parents?)?? -Those teachers said something like "We're ok with our own current policy that allows parents to send in sweet treats for birthday parties for all the kids." -Is this more or less what they said? -Were they polite? -In any case, you then went to the principal who seems to have said something like "Well the district has a policy but it's not clear or has always been implemented differently -- I'm not going to address it in my school with my teachers. You should bring it up at the school board meeting." Did Jessica say something like this??? I stick with my original perspective. This isn't an issue for the school board. Teachers should have the freedom to manage this as they see fit (even if some parents object and then go over their heads). BUT more than this, I think your principal most certainly should have HANDLED this herself within her own school. She should have either said "I support my teachers decisions, sorry your unhappy but I encourage you to send in healthy treats" OR "I see your point, I'll make sure we have a uniform policy in my school." Passing the buck is kinda weak.
Jocelyn Kester October 11, 2011 at 09:17 PM
I feel like the critical piece missing here is the notion of RESPECTFULLY agreeing to disagree. Whether you want more sports covered by the Patch (I couldn't care less about HS sports) or any and all religious holidays recognized -- or ignored (again, whatever works) or you want healthier choices and less crappy treats in the elementary schools -- we have to respect the fact that everyone has an opinion and has the right to be heard. Any tax paying person in this district can attend school board meetings and voice opinions. It would be nice if that could be done without the nastiness that has transpired in this thread. I care a great deal about healthy, clean eating and don't blame Sara for bringing it up. Whether she represented 15 parents, 500 parents or only herself -- is irrelevant. We live in a democracy where we all have the freedom to express ourselves. I'm sure the first few times Lincoln talked about freeing slaves he wasn't met with joyous clapping but thank god he had conviction and stood up for what he believed in. No one is advocating for anything extreme. No one is trying to micromanage the food, diet or lifestyle choices within anyone else's home. Personally, I'm not sure why this issue has to be so heated but let's just take a deep breath and treat each other kindly -- even if we disagree.
Lisa Buchman (Editor) October 11, 2011 at 09:23 PM
Thanks Jocelyn for putting that perfectly. And if anyone needs a reminder about Patch's terms of service, visit this link: http://bedford.patch.com/terms
John Craig October 11, 2011 at 09:46 PM
Jocelyn, I sincerely hope you' haven't found my comments disrespectfully communicated. Regarding other comments here which I agree are disrespectful, I have personally found it most useful to just ignore comments from some people, especially when they're made about unspecific / generalized groups of people. I find it's best to be specific. And to be clear I'm all for the school serving healthier food & beverage options (why I even have a hand in providing a healthier kids beverage, sold at about 40 Whole Foods Stores).
Chris October 13, 2011 at 02:40 PM
Thank you. I agree that the school itself should not supply sugary snacks to the kids, but for celebrations and birthdays I think the parents can use their judgement. If I learned a child had a specific food allergy, I would make my treat with something else.
Chris October 13, 2011 at 03:14 PM
I don't think it is fair to say people who think kids should bring able to bring in sweet snacks for their birthdays "don't care how much junk food their children consume." You are going to the extreme now. I very much care how much junk food they consume, and I send them to school with healthy food - no junk. But if he gets a cookie because it's someone's birthday, I'm OK with that. Healthy eating starts at home. I understand that you don't want to be the "bad guy" by telling your kids you can't have these sweets, but if you feel that is the right choice for your child, it's your job to be the bad guy. Parenthood isn't easy. I generally send in mini pumpkin cupcakes for by kids birthdays, they are small and at least have pumpkin in them. Most kids love them, some kids hate them. I wouldn't say they are health food in any way, but they have some redeeming qualities. But that is my choice and I don't begrude the mom who sends in confetti cupcakes either.
janice weiss October 14, 2011 at 01:52 PM
BOE. This article would have had a finite answer if KES's principal would have spoken with her teachers at a faculty meeting and agreed on an overall school decision/policy. You were left dangling without resolve from your home school and then told to go the board to ask a simple question. Children love to celebrate there birthdays and I still like the once a month for all. This works in another sad way and that is some children's parents do not send in anything to acknowledge their child's birthday and that is heartbreaking to witness. The wellness policy is "a good thing" and Janet Harckham and Mark Lipton would b able to tweek the birthday rule. I'm sorry you have been attacked, but I believe it's really a response to many levels of frustration in our lives concerning education.
Becca October 18, 2011 at 02:59 PM
It seems preposterous that an administrator would suggest that a group of parents would need to go to a BOE meeting to get clarity on a policy. Their job as administrators is to administer policy, no?


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