For generations of young students, celebrating their birthdays with big trays of homemade treats for the whole class was as American as apple pie.
But when Highland Elementary School’s 350 students celebrate their birthdays now, they do so in healthier ways.
“Lake Shore elementary students were the most overweight elementary students in Western New York,” said Christopher Walsh, Highland’s principal. “We decided to do something about it.”
What they have done since September is cut out traditional birthday fare such as cupcakes. Instead, students are bringing in fruit or even nonfood favors, such as pencils.
As America grapples with a childhood obesity epidemic– one in three are obese or overweight, according to first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative –some school districts are encouraging parents to skip frosted desserts and mark the occasion in other ways.
In the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District, food and beverages served at school celebrations must meet nutritional standards set by the district’s wellness policy, said Kim Roll, head of food service. Each district is required to have a wellness policy under the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
Those nutritional standards include guidelines such as no more than 7 grams of fat, 15 grams of sugar and 200 mg of sodium per serving for any food or drink served in school – including birthday snacks brought in by parents.
“We’re trying to encourage them to bring in other things,” Roll said. “It could be a book. It could be a parent coming in on their child’s birthday and reading to the class. We’re just looking at healthier options for parents to do to celebrate their child’s birthdays.”
Creativity has also been used to reshape the celebratory menu in Lake Shore, where juice or raisin boxes are turned into robots, Walsh said.
Walsh, who discussed the development Tuesday during a meeting of the Lake Shore School Board, said he was concerned about the quantity of soda, chips and other snacks consumed by his students.
And when a report released this summer by the state Department of Health showed just how bad Lake Shore’s problem was, he decided to take action.
“All the teachers were on board,” the principal said.
Students often want to celebrate their special day by sharing snacks with friends. But 25 students in a classroom could mean an extra 25 cupcakes over the course of a school year. That’s where some districts step in with their existing food service to offer healthier alternatives.
Ken-Ton’s food service offers parents two healthier options for their birthday child to celebrate with classmates. In one, students receive two snacks selected from white cheddar popcorn, cheddar or graham crackers, carrots, pretzels and apple juice for $12 per party. In the other, students for lunch receive a slice of stuffed crust pizza, an apple, carrot sticks, daily vegetable, ice juice and milk for $28 per party.
Roll said these options are popular at elementary schools because they can accommodate students with food allergies so they’re not left out and also ensure that proper food preparation safety standards are met. She said her office fulfills “two or three” requests each week for the party snacks or meal.
Indeed, food allergies are sometimes a bigger concern.
In the Frontier Central School District, lists of acceptable snacks are determined by teachers on a class-by-class basis, based on food allergies, said Susan J. Birmingham, director of food service.
“We certainly encourage parents to try and do it through us because of allergies,” she said.
The district offers parents in-house options ranging from traditional cupcakes to fresh fruit and vegetables, she said, noting that sales of the desserts have fallen in recent years.
In Eden, Superintendent Sandra Anzalone said the district has no policy on allowing cupcakes to be brought in for birthdays. There is only one restriction in certain classes when it comes to bringing any type of snacks in.
“Only if it pertains to an allergy,” Anzalone said.
She does not believe there are serious issues with obesity in Eden because many of the students are involved in activities such as athletics, and as a result, restrictions have not been put in place.
Since becoming superintendent in March, Anzalone said, this has never been discussed and does not believe it will be talked about by the board anytime soon.
Reaction to Lake Shore’s move away from sugary birthday treats was mixed, with one commentator on BuffaloNews.com calling supporters of the measure “killjoys” and others applauding the move as a way to combat obesity.
Walsh conceded that when the idea was first suggested to the Parent Teacher Organization, it was met with some resistance.
“We stuck to our guns,” he said.
Over time, however, parents and students have warmed to the change.
Walsh said he has heard from some parents who are glad that their children are not eating snacks like cupcakes in school.
“It didn’t affect the celebration,” said Lake Shore Superintendent James Przepasniak, who pointed out that another district elementary school, A.J. Schmidt, launched a similar program a couple of years ago.
The lone elementary school currently not in the health loop is John T. Waugh. But Przepasniak said changes similar to those at Highland and A.J. Schmidt are being considered.
Walsh noted that during the holidays, he does give some leeway so teachers can offer snack food at celebrations. But he noted that most teachers and students still stick to the same rules used for birthdays.