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Parents Ask K-L District to Clarify Wellness Policy: 'Let's Dial Back the Sugar'

Some parents at Katonah Elementary School say there is an inconsistent application of the wellness policy when it comes to celebrations at their school.

A group of 15 parents from Katonah Elementary School loved the second grade teaching team’s policy of no birthday treats served in the classroom. They loved it so much they wrote to the third grade teachers to ask them to continue the practice.

When they were turned down, they approached the principal, Jessica Godin, saying there was an inconsistent application of the district’s wellness policy, which encourages healthy food to be served at school celebrations.

“Last year, my second grader had just as much fun in school on his birthday as he did when he had cupcakes in school,” Sara Weale said at a recent school board meeting where parents were invited to share their opinion. Instead of treats, each child received a commemorative book created by his classmates on his birthday.

The changes in how teachers treat food and celebrations from year-to-year can cause strife at home, can be stressful for parents and seem to go against the health curriculum, which imparts the values of good nutrition, according to other parents who signed the letter.

The district’s wellness policy was created in July 2006 after federal law established the requirement for school districts that participate in federally funded school meal programs. The policy includes goals for nutrition and physical activity, eliminates the use of food as a classroom reward and “suggests” that food served at school celebrations follow the guidelines for food served in the cafeteria—low in refined sugar, not highly-processed, and without trans fats.

However, it's not mandated. The language stipulates that "with respect to such events, these guidelines and the consideration of healthful alternatives are not mandatory, all members of the school community are encouraged to follow these guidelines and the consideration of healthful alternatives in order to help the District create the environment described."

To read the policy in full, click on the pdf copy posted with this story.

What’s most frustrating is how the guidelines are interpreted and implemented, said Jocelyn Kester, a holistic health counselor and mom of one child in the district.

“In the first grade, it’s treats galore—from “Star of the Week,” to birthdays to “Zero is Our Hero” day,” she said, citing instances when kids would receive treats sometimes four to five times a week.

“It’s hard to learn and pay attention after you’ve eaten sugary foods—it’s not just about the cupcake, it’s about the big picture. I allow treats at home and I’d be OK with a happy medium, having them once in a while at school.”

For Laura Beth Gilman, the differences in how teachers treat food and celebrations from grade-to-grade can cause stress at home. The mother of four said she celebrates her children’s birthdays with parties at home, but they’re centered around the person and not the food served.

“When you have more than one child, it can be stressful to decide what to bring to school—one is allowed to have treats, the other isn’t, and you don’t want your child to be judged for bringing in something healthy when other kids may not,” she said.

When asked for comments for this story—if the district would provide direction at the building level on implementing the wellness policy more uniformly, among others—officials issued a statement via its public relations firm, Syntax.

“In terms of providing direction for the policy’s application, the administration encourages event organizers, whether they are school staff members or parents, to take each event as an opportunity to introduce healthy options. The Wellness Policy asks that healthy alternatives be considered, however this is not mandatory,” it reads.

In their statement, officials said they “remain cognizant of the mixed concerns and beliefs of parents regarding food served in the classrooms, however, no changes to the policy are anticipated at this time.”

Godin said she and her staff continue to explore ways to take a healthier approach to celebrations and traditions involving food and are implementing modifications to provide healthier snacks this year. (The statement in full is posted with this story.)

For some parents, the district’s position suits them just fine.

Sherrie Goldstein, a mother of one child at KES and one child at the middle school, said she didn’t mind the teachers making the decisions about in-class celebrations.

 “Whatever works for their teaching style is OK,” she said. “I’m in favor of healthy eating and my kids are good eaters. But a little sweet to celebrate is what kids want to have—they don’t associate celebrations with carrots. A treat at school can be followed by a well-balanced dinner at home.”

But the signatories of the letter are hoping for a more substantive review. Weale said helping children develop healthy eating habits is important, especially in a country with high obesity rates, and hoped the district would consider taking an inventory of celebration practices.

School board President Mark Lipton said while the board sets policy, it is enforced at the building level. The policy committee, which Lipton chairs, is currently in mid-review of all 9,000 district policies and expects to get to the one on wellness this year. They review them in numerical order, he said, but one potentially could be pulled out for a priority review if the board deemed it necessary.

Kester said some cohesion from the top down would be helpful, and had a hard time understanding why anyone would be opposed.

“These are mainstream ideas, given our obesity crisis—Michelle Obama is out there, promoting healthier eating. We’re not saying get rid of the cupcakes and serve kale juice every day. All we are saying is dial back the sugar.”

Editor's note: Sherrie Goldstein's name was originally printed as Bernstein. We regret the error and have fixed the copy.

John Craig October 11, 2011 at 09:46 PM
Jocelyn, I sincerely hope you' haven't found my comments disrespectfully communicated. Regarding other comments here which I agree are disrespectful, I have personally found it most useful to just ignore comments from some people, especially when they're made about unspecific / generalized groups of people. I find it's best to be specific. And to be clear I'm all for the school serving healthier food & beverage options (why I even have a hand in providing a healthier kids beverage, sold at about 40 Whole Foods Stores).
Chris October 13, 2011 at 02:40 PM
Thank you. I agree that the school itself should not supply sugary snacks to the kids, but for celebrations and birthdays I think the parents can use their judgement. If I learned a child had a specific food allergy, I would make my treat with something else.
Chris October 13, 2011 at 03:14 PM
I don't think it is fair to say people who think kids should bring able to bring in sweet snacks for their birthdays "don't care how much junk food their children consume." You are going to the extreme now. I very much care how much junk food they consume, and I send them to school with healthy food - no junk. But if he gets a cookie because it's someone's birthday, I'm OK with that. Healthy eating starts at home. I understand that you don't want to be the "bad guy" by telling your kids you can't have these sweets, but if you feel that is the right choice for your child, it's your job to be the bad guy. Parenthood isn't easy. I generally send in mini pumpkin cupcakes for by kids birthdays, they are small and at least have pumpkin in them. Most kids love them, some kids hate them. I wouldn't say they are health food in any way, but they have some redeeming qualities. But that is my choice and I don't begrude the mom who sends in confetti cupcakes either.
janice weiss October 14, 2011 at 01:52 PM
BOE. This article would have had a finite answer if KES's principal would have spoken with her teachers at a faculty meeting and agreed on an overall school decision/policy. You were left dangling without resolve from your home school and then told to go the board to ask a simple question. Children love to celebrate there birthdays and I still like the once a month for all. This works in another sad way and that is some children's parents do not send in anything to acknowledge their child's birthday and that is heartbreaking to witness. The wellness policy is "a good thing" and Janet Harckham and Mark Lipton would b able to tweek the birthday rule. I'm sorry you have been attacked, but I believe it's really a response to many levels of frustration in our lives concerning education.
Becca October 18, 2011 at 02:59 PM
It seems preposterous that an administrator would suggest that a group of parents would need to go to a BOE meeting to get clarity on a policy. Their job as administrators is to administer policy, no?

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