by Marion Nestle
May 15 2012

Welcome to the latest iteration of the “cupcake wars:” Massachusetts v. bake sales

While Weight of the Nation is airing on HBO this week (I’ll comment on it after it’s fully aired), here’s what happens when public health officials try to do something to make it easier for kids to eat more healthfully.

The Massachusetts public health department came up with a proposal to ban bake sales in public schools 30 minutes before, during and after classes.

The reaction?  An uproar.  The ban, according to critics, would

  • Make it harder to raise money for class trips and athletic equipment
  • Undermine the fundraising efforts of parent and student groups
  • Not help prevent obesity
  • Take away choice from school districts (“government gone awry”)

Under this kind of pressure, “the governor spoke, emergency orders were issued, and the Legislature voted.”

End of ban.

Massachusetts public health commissioner John Auerbach pointed out:

The school nutrition standards have always been about reducing childhood obesity in Massachusetts and protecting our kids from the serious long-term health impacts that obesity can cause…At the direction of Governor Patrick, the department will seek to remove these provisions.

We hope to return the focus to how we can work together to make our schools healthy environments in which our children can thrive.

Best of luck.

This reminds me of what happened in Texas, when Susan Combs, then state agriculture director, attempted to ban cupcakes from public schools.

As Dr. Cathy Isoldi described in her study of school celebrations earlier this year (on which I am a co-author),

Such bans have prompted intense opposition in many areas of the country. In Texas in 2005, a ban on food service during classroom celebrations elicited parent outrage and resulted in the addition of a Safe Cupcake Amendment to the state’s nutrition policy. The amendment, known as Lauren’s Law, ensures that parents and grandparents of schoolchildren celebrating a birthday can bring in whatever food items they choose for classroom celebrations.

Cathy’s work makes it clear that school celebrations alone can account for a whopping 20% to 35% of a child’s daily calorie needs.  This percentage does not account for additional treats sent home with children,  given to them by teachers as rewards, or purchased in school at bake sales.

You don’t see an occasional cupcake as a problem?  Read Bettina Siegel’s post on what goes on in her kids’ school and how often schoolkids are exposed to junk foods during the school day.

Of course kids will eat treats rather than healthier foods if given half a chance.  Isn’t it an adult responsibility—at home and at school—to make sure that kids eat healthfully?

The environment of many schools is anything but conducive to good health practices.  While outright bans may be seen as going too far, some kind of restriction on junk food in schools seems like a sensible adult decision, given the impact of obesity on children, families, and the health care system so well documented in Weight of the Nation.

State legislatures should be promoting such efforts, not overturning them.

  • Jon

    “Cathy’s work makes it clear that school celebrations alone can account for a whopping 20% to 35% of a child’s daily calorie needs.”

    Does Cathy’s work also make it clear that the occasional indulgence during school celebrations is contributing to childhood obesity?

    I understand the effort to reform what schools feed our kids, but I don’t understand why anyone would regulate, or complain about what parents bring to schools for their child’s birthday celebration.

  • As the blogger at The Lunch Tray, somehow I’ve found myself on the front lines of the Birthday Cupcake wars — over the last two years, I’ve written about this issue more than I once thought possible, both on my blog and on the Huffington Post. In a moment of total frustration last month, I even hammered out a “Food-in-the-Classroom Manifesto!”

    Those who will defend to their death the birthday cupcake (and, btw, I live in Texas, home of the notorious Safe Cupcake Amendment) are failing to look at the big picture. I wholeheartedly agree that there is no harm — and much pleasure to be derived –from a single cupcake. And back when my kids were in preschool, I was right there with everyone else toting my box of cupcakes in on my children’s birthdays.

    But it doesn’t take long as a public school parent to become utterly dismayed at the onslaught of sugar provided to our kids in school. As I once calculated on The Lunch Tray, in my kids’ overcrowded public school classrooms, where summer birthdays are always recognized before school lets out, fully 1/6th of the school year = Cupcake Day! And as Marion notes, that figure doesn’t take into account the many, many other treats our schools or teachers hand out – without parental consent or oversight. (See this post to read how my middle school aged daughter recently asked a teacher for permission to go to the drinking fountain and was given a Coke instead —

    Each one of us needs to look at the overall food environment in which our kids now live, an environment which is clearly harming them (see Weight of the Nation), and agree to make that small sacrifice of confining our food-based celebrations to our homes. To me, this seems like a small thing to ask parents to do given the health concerns on the other side of the equation.

    And I’m not even mentioning the perhaps even more important issue of food allergic children who are quite literally endangered by food in the classroom.

    – Bettina at The Lunch Tray

  • Timely topic! Many schools rely on fundraising activities to supplement school budgets and pay for equipment, materials, supplies, and events. Unfortunately, many school fundraisers involve the sale of unhealthy foods. Given the rising obesity rates and children’s poor diets, many schools are reconsidering whether selling low-nutrition foods is an appropriate way to raise money. However, identifying and initiating new fundraising strategies can be a challenge.

    Join us for a webinar on Wednesday May 23 from 1-2 p.m. EDT as we explore the current status of fundraising in schools, why healthy fundraising is important, and examples of profitable, healthier fundraising.


    Mollie Van Lieu, National PTA
    Margo G. Wootan, D.Sc., Center for Science in the Public Interest
    Jamie Chriqui, PhD, Institute for Health Research and Policy, University of Illinois at Chicago
    Carey Dabney, Texas PTA
    Casey Hinds, Kentucky Coordinated School Health Advisory Committee

  • Shira

    I worked at a school where all the birthdays in a given month were celebrated on one day at the beginning of each month. Twenty minutes of singing and snacking and back to school. It was a nice compromise.

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  • Anthro


    These celebrations and treats are no longer “occasional”. It is a constant thing, even daily. There are other ways to “celebrate” and why should school be part of it anyway? Kids with summer birthdays get left out of the birthday dos, and there is no justification for the time wasted either.

    You can’t do anything about obesity if you don’t start limiting the sources of the constant stream of treats. The school is source that is easy enough to stop and many parents trying to limit things at home would be grateful for some support rather than being constantly undermined.

  • Charlie L

    The only alternative is for parents to teach and model for their own children good food decision making habits.

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  • Charlie L

    Does anyone know how much of a public school’s operating budget is financed from various soda and junk food sales? It would be difficult for well intentioned parents and school officials to make schools a more nutritious environment for students if the school depends, to any appreciable extent, on the largess provided from the junk food peddlers they’re attempting to ban. I think it would be far easier if there wasn’t this Faustean deal at play. Money talks, and influences.

    We already know that school nutrition standards are sold to the highest bidders in Washington (i.e. frozen pizza = vegetable); many children are just collateral damage in the pursuit of building brand awareness and loyalty at such a young, impressionable age. Save for a Quixotic campaign to make eating vegetables “cool,” making schools a better food environment is an uphill climb against many vested special interests.

    I think the emphasis on calories as part of the Conventional Wisdom advice on nutrition plays an unwittingly supporting role as well. By focusing on the abstract concept of calories, a lot of processed Frankenfoods can be marketed as “healthy” or “healthier” so long as it meets a 100 calorie or some other arbitrary numbered threshold. Also, on the calories in, calories out mindset, there are no bad foods (and by extension bad companies), only bad portion sizes. And portion sizing is perceived as a largely individual matter. Unfortunately, many 100 calorie snacks don’t sate the appetite well because they’re loaded with sugar and who knows what else, which physiologically encourages more portions (and sales volume) to go along with the marketing to induce such behavior.

  • yulaffin

    Is it really necessary for the states to get involved in school food, other than making sure federal regulations covering mandated breakfasts/lunches served in the cafeteria are followed? When it comes to parties or celebrations in the schools, shouldn’t the parents and the individual districts be the ones to decide what food can be served? And as for school funds drives, I’m sure there are other things kids can sell besides food to raise funds for the school but let’s get real here, food will probably always be the most popular sales item.

  • sharpin la

    This is unbelievably fascist. To be honest, the processed crap posing as food that is fed to these children in the school cafeterias is far worse than made-from-scratch cupcakes sold at bake sales (but I know it’s important people not teach children things like industriousness and working for your keep).

    I didn’t have kids and I am so glad. A premonition as a teenager told me exactly where our society was going and here we are. I won’t elaborate on what came next in my vision, I will just say if we don’t stop the authorities now we will have a near impossible time stopping them tomorrow.

  • “Made from scratch” cupcakes, sharpin la? Not so. Those could have allergens, even if unintentionally, and may have not been prepared according to the latest food safety standards. Many schools’ bake sales now consist of store-bought items, by law. Ugh.

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  • As an 18 year veteran of fundraising for my children’s public schools, I can confidently state that the average bake sale raises very little of a school’s budget. Typically, bake sales are done to raise money for an individual classroom’s field trip, or to help the PTA or other parent organization pay for the mnay enrichments they try to provide for the school, or perhaps to raise money to buy new books for the library. Bake sales do not pay for teacher salaries or textbooks. In fact, after studying the issue closely, I determined that it was quicker and easier (not to mention more lucrative) to raise money trhough the “bakeless” bake sale – that is, to simply ask parents to NOT go to the store and purchase butter, flour, sugar, eggs, chocolate chips, etc.; to NOT spend an hour of their time baking cookies or brownies; to NOT volunteer another coupls of hours of their time to sell the goodies at school; and to NOT send their child to school armed with money to buy the treats. Instead, asking parents to think about how much money they would NOT be spending (including the value of their own time to shop, bake, and sell) and instead to send all or a portion of that total to school as a contribution, actually resulted in MORE money being raised than through a bake sale.

    And yes, I get it that some families are low income and that sending in a contribution is a hardship, but I do not buy the argument that “the only way they can contribute is via a bake sale.” Ingredients cost money, and no one’s time – no matter how low their income – comes free. Those who truly cannot afford to contribute at all don’t have to – just as they don’t have to participate in a bake sale. With the bakeless bake sale, at least their kids don’t feel left out when they have no money to buy the cookies and brownies that their peers are gobbling up.

    For more ways to raise money for your school without selling food, please visit

  • The irony for me in this post is that it is Food Allergy Awareness Week, an average of two children per classroom have life threatening food allergies, and most state guidelines for managing this problem (those that have them) suggest removing food from the classroom, keeping it in the cafeteria where it belongs, and finding other ways to celebrate birthdays that don’t revolve around food (since surely most children have one party with their friends plus another with relatives, no?) So it seems officials are contradicting themselves.

  • B. Koch

    It used to drive me crazy when my child’s elementary school principal, who was childless, lectured us about feeding our kids too much sugar when there was a bake sale almost everyday at lunch time and after school. I was happy to see her go after one year.

  • chuck

    something i’ve learned in the last 5 years since i’ve become obsessed with nutrition, don’t try to get in between people and their junk food. they will get down right nasty.

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  • Margo Wootan

    I’m not a fan of bake sales both as a mom and a nutritionist. Sweet baked goods are a top source of calories, sugars, and unhealthy fats in kids’ diets. And as a parent, they don’t make sense to me. We parents go out and buy ingredients, bake them, and then send our kids to school with money to buy those baked goods back from us. There are so many alternative ways to raise money for schools that are healthier, easier and more profitable:

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