02/23/2012 11:03 am ET Updated Apr 23, 2012

Please Keep Your Birthday Cupcake Out of My Kids' Classroom

On my blog, The Lunch Tray, I went on record long ago opposing the time-honored custom of bringing sugary birthday treats into school classrooms.

But a few weeks ago, a reader named Concerned Dad left this comment:

Well, my child's school is the latest to fall in the crusade of the sugar/fun police. We recently received a letter home outlining the new guidelines and apparently banning a cupcake will solve our nations obese child problem.

Let me start by saying the concern for food allergies is real, but I believe proper precautions can and are being taken currently by the school to prevent any harm to the students with those allergies. I have yet to hear of a child going into anaphylaxis shock due to a nut-filled treat. Parents are responsible and very cognizant of these rules.

Alas, I can't help but be amazed by the ongoing restrictions on fun and cherished activities in our school district, and yes, a lot of this fun includes food as part of the tradition. This latest "revelation" borders on ludicrous. "If I ban cupcakes and treats, kids will no longer be obese."

First off, today, it almost seems as if administrators never spent time in elementary school and looked forward to sharing a cupcake with their friends on their birthday or giving a lollipop to their teachers and classmates on Valentine's Day. To this day I still fondly remember looking forward to bringing treats to my class on my birthday (yes, we all celebrated birthdays). I can still remember getting a Valentine's Day card with a piece of candy attached and looking forward to eating it at home. Destroying traditions aside, I can say with 100 percent certainty that a birthday cookie or Halloween treat is not the reason for childhood obesity in our country. It is actually foolish to think that banning a fruit roll up or Twizzler at a school event that happens a few times a year will have any impact on obesity rates.

Non-food activities are fine, but food is a part of our traditions. Candy and cake are a large part of why we have such found memories of our birthdays and holidays. Food, sugar in particular, is not some evil thing that tiptoed into our society and made kids fat. Lack of activity, poor parenting, computer games, etc. all carry some of the blame. Destroying tradition by banning food activities will not be the solution. I can't say I have the answer, but I do know this is not it. Nor, can I say this is a "step in the right direction."

I won't say it is not the job of our school's to teach proper eating habits, but I will say, like most things in life, moderation and responsibility needs to be taught. Banning a food will not teach kids not to eat it. These regulations will not be the landmark event that we will look back on in 20 years as the miraculous solution to curb unsatisfactory eating habits.

I have to convey one father's disappointment to whatever board or persons (apparently many moms on this site that have nothing better to do) sit around and come up with these brilliant changes. Changes I see sacrificing great life memories, traditions and events for a perceived, but highly unlikely effect on a problem that runs much deeper than a shared Hershey Kiss. It is a shame when a silly notion is actually carried out due to lack of opposition.

If some overly protective moms feel they need to ban their kids from partaking in certain activities, they should provide a note to the teachers. There is NO reason a majority should be punished for the desires of a few.

I've addressed all of these arguments before in multiple contexts on The Lunch Tray and would refer interested readers to two posts in particular, "Sarah Palin and Birthday Sweets Redux" and "The Birthday Cupcake Debate Heats Up."

But I did want to add a few thoughts to respond specifically to Concerned Dad.

First, I was struck by Concerned Dad's confidence that severe allergic reactions to classroom treats are not a big issue. Because my kids are blessedly free of food allergies, I turned to a mother of a nut-allergic child who has fought hard for appropriate precautions at her daughter's school. Here's what she had to say:

As the mom of a peanut-allergic child who has witnessed first-hand the horror of an anaphylactic reaction, I can assure this parent that the threat in the school environment is constant and overwhelming.  Regardless of the care and concern from most school communities, random checks by school nurses reveal that parents sending snacks to school fail miserably at following allergen-free guidelines. Some parents don't know how to accurately read a label for food allergens or cross-contamination and others, from my experience, simply don't care. Factor in the risks of uninformed substitute teachers, birthday treats, and daily emails listing recalls from mislabeled foods and the school setting can be a scary place.

And given that I once reported on a child's tragic death from a food allergic reaction at a class party, I don't think anyone can seriously doubt the degree to which classroom treats pose a real danger to many students.

But mostly I wanted to address here the palpable thread of nostalgia running through Concerned Dad's entire comment, his belief that "food is a part of our traditions," that "[c]andy and cake are a large part of why we have such found memories of our birthdays and holidays," and his recollection that  "[t]o this day I still fondly remember looking forward to bringing treats to my class on my birthday (yes, we all celebrated birthdays). I can still remember getting a treats at school Valentine's Day card with a piece of candy attached and looking forward to eating it at home."

I absolutely agree with Concerned Dad's feelings about the centrality of food in our celebrations and culture. But my question to him is, is there a legitimate reason why some parents no longer want their kids eating a cupcake at school every time a classmate has a birthday (which I once calculated as 1/6th of my daughter's school year), even if the birthday cupcake was a cherished tradition in the past?  Is there a reason why we might want to change course?

And I think the answer to that question is a resounding yes.

In a rueful post I wrote a few weeks ago, I told Lunch Tray readers about an all-day school event my daughter attended at which she bought the following food to eat, food sold by the school itself to raise funds: a bag of cookies, a bag of Funions, a bag of Chex Mix, two slices of Papa John's pizza, a donut and a Coke.When my daughter's school reading team won a competition, they used to celebrate with a "Junk Food Party," where kids were supposed to bring the most outrageous junk food they could find to share with each other. Someone finally put a stop to that, so now they go out for burgers, fries and shakes. In second grade, when my son got a math problem right, he was given M&Ms.For every single correct answer. Rewards for good behavior at school have at times included jumbo chocolate bars, the size you find in a movie theater. The teacher running one of the school's extracurricular clubs hands out candy to every child as he or she leaves for the day. The nutrition-promoting signs in our local elementary school cafeterias are dwarfed by larger signs advertising the ice cream sold by our Food Services department to help drive profits. And our food services' idea of "healthy" a la carte food includes Baked Flamin' Hot Cheetos.

The situation is no better outside of school. We walk into the bank, the kids get candy. We go to the postal services store, they get candy. When a "snack" is offered at any religious school class, day camp, team sport event, extracurricular activity, or any other place where two or more kids gather, it is almost invariably the type of cheap prepackaged junk foods shown here.  Meanwhile, the food industry is spending almost $2 billion each year to directly market junk food to my children. Two. Billion. Dollars.

In today's world, unlike my own childhood, junk food is made available-- and aggressively marketed -- to our kids all the time.

Perhaps the best description of the problem came from an early commenter on The Lunch Tray:

The problem is so ubiquitous... I find myself pausing before taking my kids to the carwash, for example (of all places), as they inevitably clamor for doritos; gatorade; sprite, etc., prominently displayed as soon as you enter the waiting area! Even as I walk my son from the parking lot to the baseball field for a Tuesday night practice, we have to pass a temporary stand set up to "fuel" the players with cookies, M&M's, and James Coney Island hot-dogs. Sometimes I just want to scream with frustration.

So that's what's going on out there, Concerned Dad. For those of us who care about our children's health, we are (sometimes literally) screaming with frustration.

But are we being alarmist? Are we silly mother hens? Well, let's consider the facts underlying our concerns.

One third of kids are already overweight or obese, such that school desks actually need to be made larger to accommodate today's students.  Of course, obesity is only one marker of poor eating habits; there are also plenty of skinny kids who eat too much junk food and fast food, a problem not perceptible to the naked eye but no less significant in terms of their long-term health. Meanwhile, obesity-related health care costs are headed toward $66 billion a year, causing a terrible drain on our already-weakened economy. And the military is actually having trouble finding suitable young recruits, posing a real threat to our national security.

Of course we can't peg all of these problems on one little birthday cupcake. Nor can we peg them on eating habits alone. Just as you say, Concerned Dad, "[l]ack of activity, poor parenting, computer games, etc. all carry some of the blame," and I'd add to your list the loss of cooking skills, the demise of the family dinner, the wrongheaded allocation of farm subsidies and a host of other ills. But the eight hours in which our kids are captive to the school environment do not have to be part of the problem, either.

The way I see it is this: Looking back to our own childhoods, it might have been perfectly reasonable to force the one outlier parent to send a note exempting his or her child from the birthday cupcakes. But now, when we're in the midst of a documented public health crisis, it seems much more reasonable to turn that model upside down.

If you want your kid to have a celebratory cupcake, I hope he or she enjoys it with gusto at your private birthday party.  But can you also respect the rights of those of us who are fighting -- hard -- to keep our children healthy in a society that seems to be thwarting us at every conceivable turn?