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.