School Essays Banned Cupcakes

In the opening scene of Allison Pearson’s book “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” we meet Kate Reddy, frantic working mom, whacking store-bought pies with a rolling pin in the middle of the night so that they look homemade when brought to her child’s school the next day.

The moment captures how “mothering” has somehow become synonymous with “made from scratch” in so many circles.

Nowadays, however, in many school districts in the U.S., Kate’s pies would be turned away at the classroom door. Increasingly schools are asking that all snacks brought in by parents be store-bought and individually pre-packaged. That includes birthday cakes and Halloween treats (at those schools that still permit either one).

In part that is out of insurance concerns — if someone gets sick from a commercial product there is a company to blame – but mostly it is prompted by an increase in childhood allergies. If you can read a list of ingredients on a package you can better protect a student who might be allergic to those ingredients.

This will give some of us one less thing to feel guilty about while also lamenting the way things were when we were kids. It will also give kids one more reason to conclude that food grows on shelves, wrapped in cellophane.

Cupcakes are at the center of a growing national debate on school snacks.

In some states, public health and school officials would like to ban the miniature cakes from schools entirely, along with all other sugar-laden goodies. This week, the Iowa City School district proposed prohibiting all homemade treats from school celebrations, allowing only fruits, vegetables and packaged foods with pre-approved ingredients.

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Yet, also earlier this week, the new secretary of agriculture of Texas, Sid Miller, declared a “cupcake amnesty” that abolished all rules and guidelines that prevent parents from bringing cupcakes to school.

At the heart of this cupcake war is a burgeoning childhood obesity rate. Nearly 20 percent of children 18 and younger are obese, according to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- quadruple the number compared to 30 years ago.

“Along with allergies, childhood obesity is one of the things we are trying to address with our new policies,” explained Susie Poulton, the director of health services for the Iowa City School District. “We want to make sure there are always healthy options available for our kids and we’re really working towards making that happen.”

As for Texas, food blogger and school nutrition activist, Bettina Elias Siegel pointed out that the call for cupcake amnesty was unnecessary since the ban on junk food in Texas public schools was lifted more than a decade ago. However, if the rules were reinstated, she said she would support them.

“What I take issue with is bringing treats to school and the kids eating them without their parents' knowledge and consent,” Siegel said.

Outside of school, Siegel said she is unabashedly pro-cupcake. When her two kids first started school, she was one of the moms who baked cupcakes for their class celebrations. But then she noticed how often they were coming home with blue frosting on their faces.

“I wanted more control over what my kids ate and when,” she said.

James O. Hill, professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Colorado, applauded the idea of taking nutrition in schools more seriously but said he thinks cupcake bans go too far.

“We have to have some common sense here. If your kid is physically active they can afford a cupcake now and then,” he said.

Hill said he’s never seen a food ban work. Perhaps a middle ground where there are some limitations are best, he said.

With so many opinions, schools are struggling to strike the right balance.

In Iowa, Poulton acknowledged that cupcakes can be a polarizing issue.

“While I received a lot of positive feedback from parents I spoke with, we received over 800 comments to our proposal in the first 24 hours,” she said. “Many of them were not exactly on board.”

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