by Marion Nestle
Sep 23 2007

School food: the cupcake problem?

Today’s New York Times quotes me discussing the “cupcake problem,” the deal breaker in many attempts to get junk foods out of schools. I don’t have anything against cupcakes–I love them too–but in reasonable frequency and size. Friends with school-age children tell me the kids are bombarded with sweets in school for birthdays, rewards, trades, and treats. Cupcakes have become the flash point for arguments about who should control what kids eat. I, of course, think schools should set a good example. Your thoughts?

  • Funny you should mention this. My third grader’s 9th birthday is tomorrow and I am agonizing over what to bring to the class, both to fit in with the teacher’s guidelines (convenient and “healthy”) and my own preferences (homemade, not loaded with empty carbs, nutritionally dense or at least not “unhealthful”).

    My experience so far wth this issue is that schools and teachers request “healthy” snack” but what they really mean is low fat snacks, perhaps lower in sugar. So the options are usually high in empty carbs, especially starches.

    Usually instead of cupcakes, teachers suggest muffins (nutritionally that is basically a cupcake without frosting), bagels (not sweet but double the refined carbs in many cases), or frozen popsicles. And the teachers naturally want classroom treats to be convenient, i.e., not requiring utensils, needed to be cut up into portions, etc. Usually parents either buy individually wrapped snacks (always high in carbs and usually sweet), they bring the traditional cupcakes or bagels.

    It’s quite the dilemma and I don’t have a satisfactory answer. And I need one. By tomorrow :-).

  • Another gripe about this issue: all of the teachers my son had during grades K-2 handed out cheap, sugary candy, such as lollipops and chewy fruit flavored things to the kids fairly regularly at the end of the day. I wish they didn’t.

  • Anna, can you bring a non-food treat, such as those icky stretchy rubber hands that kids love?

    Or how about popcorn?

  • Or cute school supplies? Does it have to be something to eat?

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  • You know, I agree that our kids are bombarded by sugary snacks & treats at school, but I honestly don’t think that birthday cupcakes are the real problem. Think about it this way: for an average school year, and an average classroom size (25-30 students), if every student in the class has a birthday during the school year that amounts to, at most, about 4 cupcakes a month. Most of these cupcakes are the smallish, 1/2 cup sized ones. And this ignores that a sizable number of the students have birthdays in the summer, and usually have a “one-day celebration” at school. I don’t really think that having a treat like this, for a child’s birthday, at most 4 times a month (again, a high estimate) is going overboard.

    Having said that, the cupcakes plus the treats & rewards in school, plus the “parent competition” for supplying the most impressive birthday treat, plus the other odd times people try and bring treats, plus the soda & snack machines…. and so on, is way too much. And I fully support any parents who prefer to bring healthy and/or non-food treats for kids birthdays–great idea! But if we could give up all the extraneous other reasons people come up with to pump our kids with sugar, maybe the reasonable occasions–like birthdays–will be less arduous.

  • I agree that cupcakes aren’t a huge deal, but like Robyn, I applaud creative alternatives!

    Here’s my pet peeve: Selling candy bars as fund-raisers. When my kids were in parochial school, they would be given two boxes, 40 candy bars, to sell on the second week of school. There was an opt-out form for parents who didn’t want to do it, but one year I missed the form and we were stuck with the stupid candy bars. Of course, with 400 kids selling the candy bars everywhere in town, it was impossible to unload them. We sold a few, ate a few, and gave the rest away on Halloween.

    But the school also had a rule that kids weren’t allowed have candy in their lunches. What a mixed message!

  • Robyn is right, the cupcakes aren’t the issue. In fact, many of the lunches from home I have seen are far worse, packaged stuff from the warehouse stores. And non-food treats are a good idea, but of course I left this to the last minute and don’t want to go out and spend yet more money.

    I ended up making a chocolate zucchini cake this afternoon with a recipe from my favorite veggie cookbook, Asparagas to Zucchini (Madison WI area CSA publication). I had several zucchini from my CSA box languishing on my counter (zucchini is not one of my favorite veggies) and I remembered my son not even noticing the shredded zucchini the other time I made the cake (sort of like carrot cake but with cocoa). Finding enough flour was a challenge – I use so little now – but I had enough whole wheat, pastry, and quinoa flour in the freezer to make a flour combo. I added some freshly ground cocoa nibs to the cocoa powder and semi-sweet chocolate chips for added chocolately-ness. It looks and smells good.

  • Sheila

    I don’t think we will get our culture to give up the idea of a sweet treat for celebrating happy events such as birthdays or holidays. I have 2 strategies I use in my home and share with my patients interested in healthier eating.
    First, I try to serve fresh fruit-based crisps instead of frosted cakes if possible. I do not add sugar or butter to the fresh fruit filling, and I have developed a cobbler/crisp type topping made of oats, oat bran flour, pecans or almonds, cinnamon, a handful of brown sugar and just a couple of tablespoons of butter for the whole pan of topping. This topping is scattered on top of fresh seasonal fruits and baked. A small serving of this is satisfying to the sweet tooth, seems festive, and does not totally destroy a whole day’s nutritional counts.
    My second strategy is to revise my cake recipes for those times that a cake or cupcake is the only thing acceptable. I have replaced the white flour in my recipes with a smaller amount of oat bran flour, cut the butter or oil in half and replaced it with unsweetened applesauce, and cut the sugar in half. Please note these measures can destroy some recipes, so I advise working with the changes a few times before the big day you need a cake for an event. But, using these guidelines in general,

  • Melissa

    How about a nice fruit salad for the treat? Everyone likes fruit salad.

  • elfling

    I don’t mind the cupcakes for birthdays. They’re relatively small and infrequent.

    My school does fundraising bake sales pretty much every Friday. Everything is sold for a quarter. A classroom will easily make $50-$60 off a bake sale… this in a school of around 120 students, so that’s an average of two items per person! I don’t even fret about that too much. When I forget to send my daughter with a quarter, other kids share theirs with her, so she still gets a treat. I’m OK with that. The sharing and community lesson is more important than the once-a-week treat. So now I just make sure she has a quarter to share.

    What does sadden me is that some families send in a box of Wal-Mart cupcakes… which probably cost more than the school got for them… not exactly an ideal fundraiser.

    I have a chocolate chip oatmeal cookie recipe that I make that is easy and fairly healthy. I use all whole wheat flour, so it’s whole grain. There’s sugar and oil (it can be made with applesauce), but at least you get nutrition for the calories. It’s a good after-sports snack and good for other occasions, though not quite fancy enough for a birthday.

  • Fentry

    I am also opposed to “cracking down” on cupcakes. I believe the exceptions should prove the rule. In all truth, I think that an anti-cupcake campaign does a lot more harm than good because it alienates a lot of people who really could be convinced into making health a real day-in, day-out priority. It also gives enemies something to latch on to and makes people who care about health seem too radical, or un-fun, or anti-child–none of which is necessarily true!

  • Jennifer

    You are all forgetting about an increasingly large percentage of the school population, namely children with allergies. Food treats for birthdays, holiday parties, and other celebrations, make it almost impossible for allergy kids to fit in. Schools should educate children, not feed them!