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.