Schools as birthday-cake-free zones

  • Article by: SARAH LEMAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 3, 2008 - 7:32 AM

Concerns about nutrition and fairness have prompted some Minnesota schools to ban the tradition of bringing birthday treats to school.

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Red Pine Elementary Principal Gary Anger congratulated twin sisters Madison, center, and Emily Sides, who turned 10 Wednesday. The school doesn’t allow sharing birthday treats.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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For Principal Gary Anger, one of the best reasons to keep birthday treats out of the classroom popped up one day last year when a second-grader landed in his office for making trouble at Red Pine Elementary in Eagan.

Turned out it was the boy's birthday, and he didn't have cookies or a cake to share. "The big reason he was acting up was because he didn't have anything to give his classmates," said Anger, whose school began nixing birthday snacks this year.

The tradition of classroom birthdays with sheet cake or pizza has survived for many families even as schools nationwide have cut back on sugary treats in lunchrooms, snack carts and class fundraisers. But that's changing in some Minnesota schools, which now tell parents to keep the confections at home -- not only for health reasons, but also to cut down on time spent on class parties and to spare the feelings of students whose families can't afford elaborate treats for the whole class.

Some parents, though, find the idea of a food-free birthday distasteful.

"I kind of struggle with that because, come on, a birthday is a celebration," said Chanel Churcher, who said her fifth-grade son told her last year that treats were discouraged in his class at Galtier Magnet Elementary in St. Paul. Churcher said she called his teacher and got permission to bring them anyway. "I'm just a cupcake mom," she said.

But some principals are not cupcake administrators. For Tom Idstrom, of Rosemount Elementary, the final straw came the afternoon when he found himself staring at a row of six chocolate cupcakes that students had lined up at the end of his desk.

"The days of homemade chocolate chip cookies are over, and the types of things that students were bringing in were enormous muffins or just large birthday treats," said Idstrom, who pointed out that, for safety reasons, many schools have long told parents to send in store-bought treats instead of homemade goods. "We felt that that wasn't necessarily what we wanted within our school on a daily basis. With 620 kids, we have three or four birthdays a day."

Three years ago, Rosemount Elementary banned classroom birthday foods. Others in the metro area are moving in the same direction. The Edina district, for example, is urging schools to stop allowing birthday treats, with a goal of switching to healthy snacks by next year and ultimately moving away from food entirely, said Jolene Goldade, the district's communications manager. As of this year, all Minnetonka elementary schools are birthday- cake-free zones.

Saying no to sugar

In recent years, a nationwide concern about student health problems such as obesity and severe food allergies has been intensifying. By 2006, school districts across the nation were required to create wellness policies to comply with federal legislation.

Recently, parents have pushed the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district to get rid of so many desserts on its cafeteria menu that elementary students now get little more than a cookie a month in hot lunches, said Wendy Knight, the district's coordinator of food and nutrition services. "Parents would call and say, 'Don't put a Fruit Roll-Up on.' OK, we took the Fruit Roll-Up off," she said. "'Take the brownie off.' OK, we'll take the brownie off."

But birthdays can be a touchy subject, prompting some schools to seek buy-in from teachers and parents before changing the rules. At Thomas Lake Elementary in Eagan, three grade levels now ban birthday foods, but the rule won't go school-wide until a majority goes for the idea, said Principal Mary Jelinek.

Jordan Elementary has worked hard to improve student nutrition, cutting down on chocolate milk and sending low-income students home on Fridays with a backpack of healthy snacks, said Principal Stacy DeCorsey. But the school decided not to crack down on birthday treats. "You still gotta live a little," she said.

"It is a tough line to balance, because you are talking about something very visceral in regards to celebrating your child's birthday," said Principal John Garcia, of Apple Valley's Cedar Park Elementary, who brought the no-birthday-treat policy with him when he moved this fall from St. Paul's Galtier. In some cases at Galtier, he said, the birthday celebration that some low-income families threw in class was the only one their kids got. "There was no party waiting for you at home."

But health reasons for the rule are compelling, not to mention the teaching time that birthday snack breaks eat up, Garcia said. "My job is to raise the academic rigor in this building, and it's tough to do that if we're celebrating lots of birthdays every day."

Several principals at schools with the no-food rule said they still celebrate birthdays in a variety of ways, from singing "Happy Birthday" in class to giving students extra recess time or a crown to wear for the day. And parents often send in small classroom gifts instead of candy.

Feedback has been largely positive, said several principals and parents.

"It's just a lot easier," said Shannon Lilga, who has a son in second grade at Red Pine. Plus, she added, "I think the kids just have much more fun picking out the 2-, 3-cent pencils than they did just grabbing a couple bags of candy bars off a shelf."

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016

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