By Susan Flynn 

Better check with the teacher before sending your child to school with birthday cupcakes for the class this year. More and more Massachusetts school districts are adopting a no-food policy for classroom celebrations in response to a growing obesity epidemic, an increase in allergies, and recognition that these constant mini-parties can be disruptive to learning.

In Mansfield, the School Committee  approved such a ban, mainly due to an “astronomical” increase in food allergies, says School Committee Chairman Michael Trowbridge. Schools in Beverly, Weymouth and Hull have approved similar restrictions to limit food at party celebrations.

Trowbridge says the change in his school district of 4,900 students was met only with minor resistance. “I think the parties can get out of hand,” he says, describing the disruption that can occur when the birthday child and a friend (or friends) leave class to deliver cupcakes to former teachers, the office secretaries, the school nurse, the music teacher, etc. “There are other ways to celebrate without bringing in food.”

Some schools are inviting students to bring a pencil or special gift to share with classmates. Other districts encourage teachers to hand out a “no homework” pass, or to decorate the birthday child’s chair for a special recognition.

The point, says Trowbridge and others, is to get away from the practice of having food at the center of celebrations. Janice King, outgoing president of the Massachusetts School Nutrition Association, says the health of our next generation must be the priority, and no one can deny the fact that childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions in this country.

“There is this perception that every time there’s a holiday, it’s candy and cupcakes,” says King, who serves as director of school nutrition at Quaboag Regional School District, which educates children from Warren and West Brookfield. “Our culture can’t get together without eating and having drinks. We say, ‘Let’s create some new traditions.”’

The state’s new nutrition guidelines for public schools do not outright ban food at birthday party celebrations, but they will definitely restrict the types of food that can be served. Under the guidelines, any treat brought in from home cannot have more than 200 calories, or more than 35 percent of its calories from sugar or fat. Thus, most birthday cupcakes wouldn’t make the cut. 

Pencils Instead of Parties

The Hannah Elementary School in Beverly adopted a ban on school birthday treats last year, a pilot for a citywide implementation this fall. Children are still allowed three classroom parties, for events like Halloween and Valentine’s Day, but no treats are allowed on birthdays.

Principal Susan Snyder says the change was part of the district’s wellness policy and an acknowledgment that classroom time is best spent on “learning and instruction and not on sugary treats.” Children were encouraged to create goody bags with pencils or erasers to pass out, or parents could buy a book for the library in honor of the birthday child. Some kids handed out gift certificates to the school store.

“I think it worked out fine for us,” says Snyder. “I think some parents found it a relief to not have to run out to the store the night before to buy cupcakes.”

The idea of banning sweets in the classroom draws mixed reactions from other parents.

Kim Reichelt, a Wayland mother, found herself initially against a ban on the classroom celebrations. The more she thought about it, however, the more she decided the change was the right thing to do. “If your child’s class has 25 kids in it, then we’re not talking about a rare occasional treat, but the possibility of unplanned cake on about 15 percent of school days – snacks that a parent has no control over,” she says. “For most kids, these snacks may be no big deal, but if you are trying to watch what your kids are eating, then this really matters.”

Reichelt says fellow parents at her kids’ school send in non-food items for birthday celebrations, such as pencils or cute erasers. “Since they aren’t consumed, the kids have and use them for a while and they really remember whose birthday they came from, so it’s a lasting good association,” she says. “This helps send the message that food is not required for a fun celebration.”

Susie Martin, a parent in Attleboro, does not think food is required for kids to have fun, but she also disagrees with the suggestion that an extra birthday cupcake is responsible for the obesity epidemic. She says parents need to do a better job at home feeding their children healthy foods.

“I volunteered in a kindergarten classroom this year and you would not believe the crap people send in with their kids for lunch,” says Martin. “I’ve seen kids with Skittles and M&Ms for snacks. Really? I say don’t take the kids’ childhoods away. One cupcake a month is not going to make a child chubby.” 

Susan Flynn is associate editor at the Boston Parents Paper.