My 10-year-old's public elementary school sent home a notice this week:
"As many of you may already be aware, a significant number of children are at risk for medical conditions related to increase in weight, poor nutrition and allergies. In an effort to promote continued health and wellness, we are asking staff and parents to decrease the amount of food related activities in the school environment."
For a school system that has tended to use M&Ms to teach kindergardeners math and trotted in greasy pizzas to demonstrate fractions, this policy isn't entirely a bad thing, I thought.
But the next line of the notice was a shocker: "Recognizing that many of your children enjoy celebrating birthdays, we request that you work with the classroom teacher to find other, 'non-food' ways to celebrate birthdays. Food items such as cupcakes, cookies, and the like may no longer be brought to school and distributed to students."
In other words: Cupcakes are now contraband.
As anyone who has ever been a kid knows, a birthday is the axis around which the kid year revolves. Many of the months and days leading up to the day are spent... well, counting the months and days leading up to the day. It's a day when a child can feel special -- a day that is theirs alone.
So it feels Grinch-like to enforce a no-cake policy. But circumventing one of the joys of childhood is not the only problem here. Banning birthday cupcakes suggests that treats are never a good idea. It promotes abstinence over moderation, which, when it comes to a youth's developing relationship with food, isn't such a hot idea. The inevitable giving in to temptation inevitably results in guilt and self-loathing.
Not to mention an out-of-school culture that's... well, saturated with powerful branding of fatty fast-food. But an authoritarian response -- banning cake -- will merely make the contraband more desirable...
What's more, it feels a little silly to fight fat by banning birthday cupcakes, especially since at the same time that cupcakes are banned at my daughter's elementary school she can still buy chips and cookies every lunchtime in the cafeteria.
So what about fighting obesity and diabetes with the tools that really make a difference: promoting healthy-eating habits, encouraging treats in moderation, and increasing playground time?
As Rep. Jim Dunnam, a Waco (Texas) Democrat who led a pro-cupcake charge in his Texas town last year, put it, "having a cupcake for your birthday -- if that's where we're at in trying to fight obesity in the United States, then we're way behind the curve."