By Christine Peets with Sheila Campbell of 2Ascribe
What, no cupcakes for kindergarten birthday parties? No cookies with nuts for the school bake sale? Not even pop at school dances! How do you sing Happy Birthday without candles on something? Who knew that birthday parties at school were to become the new obstacle course for parents to navigate what children can take to school to eat and celebrate.
For most of us, celebrating special events means having special foods – fun foods, foods we don’t eat every day, like cupcakes and ice cream cake. When it’s a child’s birthday or another special occasion, parents may want to send a treat. But in today’s school environments, sometimes those special items are outright banned.
The English Montreal School Board (EMSB) has developed a clear nutritional policy [www.emsb.qc.ca/nutrition-caf/emsb-nutrition-policy] that regulates “all food distribution (sold or donated) to students by Board staff or representatives on school grounds during regular school activities.” But the policy does not regulate food brought from home, or foods served for the “occasional special celebration.” That’s still up to the individual school or teacher. Sylvie Beaudry,Coordinator, School Organization/Cafeteria and Nutrition Education Services, says, “Each school is responsible for promoting the nutrition policy in their community and establish the parameters to be applied to food brought from home in their school.”
EMSB says that Families are encouraged to follow nutritional guidelines [http://www.emsb.qc.ca/nutrition-caf/pdf/2009_Families.pdf] to help “increase nutritional knowledge,” and increase “nutritious intake.” Parents are asked that all food sent for lunches and snacks are not among those classed as high fat foods, sugary foods and drinks, including energy drinks (where some type of sugar is often listed as the first ingredient) or those containing trans fats. So no French-fries, potato chips, soft drinks or cream-filled cookies. School officials encourage children to bring in food from all food groups including vegetables and fruit, whole grain products, milk and alternatives as well as meat and alternatives.
“Lunches and snacks seem to be one thing,” says Helen Wolkowicz, who has a daughter enrolled in an EMSB school. “Birthdays are another story, and it is usually up to the teacher to decide on what gets brought in—and what doesn’t.” Wolkowicz says she’s had very strict guideline notes sent home from some of her child’s teachers directing parents as what they can bring in for a child’s birthday so that the nutrition policy is followed. Other times, there’ve been no guidelines, or the teachers just told the children verbally what would be allowed in the classroom. “So, it was inconsistent, and sometimes frustrating, because one teacher banned all crackers, and I buy healthy crackers.”
The Board tries to help families, especially those whose children have food allergies. They have “designated” areas where children with special foods can eat safely, and they are allowed to bring in something and keep it in their locker for special occasions for times when something is brought in that they can’t eat. However, the EMSB policy states, “While providing a safe environment is a major concern, an allergen free environment cannot be guaranteed as complete avoidance of allergens cannot be guaranteed.”
To make sure that all celebrations are safe for all children, some teachers encourage parents to send something simple like a new pencil for every child, or some stickers. However, this has a way of escalating. Carolyn Robertson, a kindergarten teacher in the Toronto area, says that sometimes things go too far, and parents send gift bags, commonly known as “loot bags.” The contents and costs can become competitive among children and their parents.
She says that this poses several problems: the kids can’t take care of distribution independently (it takes too long with 30 kids in the class), there is nowhere to store them until the children can take them home, and they are not always clearly labelled, which could lead to food allergy concerns. Robertson is not always sure the kids even appreciate the gift because they rarely say, “thank you” without being prompted.
“I discussed this with parents at the beginning of the year during the ‘Meet the Teacher’ night, and next year I will write it in my newsletter not to send these loot bags,” Robertson says. “There are no school policies about this; it’s up to the teacher’s discretion, but parents continue to ask about it [every year], so next year, I will be more diligent.”
The bottom line? Ask your children’s teacher about the policy at the beginning of the school year. Find out if there’s a classroom, a school or a School Board policy. Talk to your child(ren) about ways to make celebrating special days at school meaningful to them. Maybe it’s tying a helium balloon on their desk chair. Maybe it’s making a donation to a charity and then giving information about what they’ve done to their classmates, and even asking the teacher for time to explain to them why they choose a particular charity. Check out these charities, all started by kids http://www.buzzfeed.com/nakedjuice/incredible-charities-started-by-children#.fh0WwNAMo.
Keep the special foods for celebrations with family. And get creative and be healthy!
Christine Peets is a freelance writer based in Ontario, Canada. Her work includes writing about various healthcare issues, and she enjoys researching all aspects of fitness and nutrition.
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