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When did holiday parties turn into sugar-fests? Frustrated parents get creative to limit sweets
More parents, advocates and experts are pushing for increased awareness of how much sugar and empty calories end up in children's classrooms, and then opting for fruit and vegetable-based snacks or even non-food-based rewards and parties. - photo by Sara Israelsen-Hartley
As Melinda Arcara marched around the lunchroom, green paper sprouts on her head and large green leaves on her front, a handful of second-grade students began chanting "Brocc-o-li" "Brocc-o-li."

The chant was quickly picked up by the rest of the students and may have helped a few kids actually try the often-refused vegetable, as part of the annual "Tasty Tuesday" event in Arcara's Owen J. Roberts School District in Chester County, Pennsylvania.

"I'll have parents tell me, 'My child has never tried this fruit or vegetable, but because it was there, and with the encouragement of an adult saying, 'Come on, you can do this!' and making it fun (they tried it),'" says Arcara, a mom of two.

Arcara is serious about healthy food options for kids at school, whether that means dressing up like a cruciferous vegetable, blogging about her gluten-free diet or volunteering (over and over) to be the home-room mom so she can plan healthy treats for class parties.

She's part of what she believes is a growing group of parents, advocates and experts who are pushing for increased awareness of just how much sugar and empty calories end up in children's classrooms, and then opting for fruit and vegetable-based snacks or even non-food-based rewards, fundraisers and celebrations.

And with Valentine's Day around the corner, it's a perfect time for parents to rethink their snack defaults and focus on "nutrient-rich" foods, says Dr. Robert Murray, president of the Ohio chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and one of the lead authors of a 2015 AAP statement, "Snacks, Sweetened Beverages, Added Sugars and Schools."

"The treats that parents bring in, of all kinds, tend to be low in nutritional value," says Murray, a pediatric gastroenterologist and nutritionist who spent 10 years on the AAP's Council on School Health. "They have to be aware that they're not the only one bringing stuff into school it's pouring into school from every direction, and cumulatively it really does damage."

Sugar saturation

Two years ago, when Cindy Santa Ana's 9-year-old daughter got home from her class Valentine's Day party, she dumped out her candy haul and it nearly filled the kitchen table.

"When did Valentine's Day become Halloween?" Santa Ana recalls bemoaning. "Some parents say, 'oh it's just one day, just one class party, let them have their fun."

Yet with class sizes often nearing 30 kids, the "one day" or "one party" multiplies quickly.

"When you think of how many birthday parties there are, and they bring in a cupcake for everyone. And then every Friday it's a trip to the treasure box, with a bunch of candy. And then of course, you guys brought in 500 box tops, now we want a pizza party or a root beer float party it's excessive," says Santa Ana, who once suffered a host of physical ailments due to poor diet and exercise, then turned her life around and has since become a health coach.

A 2012 study of classroom birthday parties found that in just a few minutes, kids can consume 20 percent of their daily calories between 259 to 455 calories.

The American Heart Association recently recommended that kids under 18 should eat less than 25 grams of sugar (or 6 teaspoons) each day and kids under 2 should eat no foods or drinks containing added sugars. The emphasis is on added sugars, which keep fruit and its naturally occurring sugars out of the crosshairs.

That recommendation may seem generous, but many Valentine's Day candies contain close to, or more than the recommended amount. One heart-shaped chocolate Snickers has 17 grams of sugar, while a quarter cup of regular M&Ms contains 27 grams.

Experts are especially concerned about drinkable sugar through sodas, "fruit" drinks, energy drinks and other sugar-sweetened options. The CDC recently reported that among kids ages 2-19, more than two-thirds are drinking one sugar-sweetened beverage on a given day despite numerous studies pointing out negative long-term effects.

Food isn't everything

However, experts like Murray are seeing growing interest in reducing sugar at school through non-food snacks and rewards. Teachers may offer extra recess, playing a special game, being the teacher's helper, reading a favorite book or listening to music. Perhaps the birthday child wears a special hat and uses special markers from a "birthday box" anything to take the emphasis off food.

At Santa Ana's kids' elementary school outside Washington, D.C., each month the principal sends an email detailing the birthday party policy, which reminds parents that if they do bring in food, they must clear it with the teacher first to avoid potential allergies. There's also encouragement to consider a non-food route, like donating a book in their child's name to the library or bringing in a pencil for each student.

"When you give young children food rewards, they're going to reward themselves like that for the rest of their lives," says Carol Muller, state director of Action for Healthy Kids in Colorado, a nonprofit group that works with school officials, parents and communities to create healthier school environments. "It's not just about the sweets they're having (now), it's what we're training them on and how to take care of themselves."

When Sally Kuzemchak, a dietician and author of the blog "Real Mom Nutrition," has volunteered in her kids' Columbus, Ohio, classrooms, the first thing she does is talk to her child's teacher. Often, she says she's pleasantly surprised that the teacher also wants healthy snacks (in part because many are tired of cleaning up bright blue frosting from desks and carpets) or just activities.

"There's this misconception that (kids) need this fancy, extravagant party," Kuzemchak said. "Kids are just psyched to not have to do school work and to have fun.

"It's our job as parents to alter their environment," she continued. "I'm all for occasional parties and celebrations. I love cupcakes, and I see a place for candy, but when it comes down to it, it's just too much right now and we really need to acknowledge that."

Culture of wellness

On average, American kids get about 40 percent of their calories from high-calorie, low-nutrient foods, says Murray.

"So it's more than sugar, they eat all kinds of garbage," he says, ticking off things like Cheetos, Doritos, soda, cookies all things engineered to appeal to kids and adults alike.

Not only does eating like that dull taste buds to the subtler tastes of fruits and vegetables, but filling up on "garbage" makes it nearly impossible to get the required servings of fruits, veggies and whole grains within the remaining 60 percent of calories, Murray says.

Thus, kids end up with vitamin and mineral deficiencies, making it hard to "function all day, every day, but particularly (in) school," he says.

Trying to combat that, the government has created strict nutritional requirements for school breakfasts and lunches, as well as any competing foods sold to students during lunch or before or after school.

While the guidelines from the USDA are very specific, detailing required amounts of grains, meats, fruits and vegetables, as well as limits on calories, fats and sugars, the federal guidelines don't extend to classroom party snacks or things brought in by parents.

Those foods are "unregulated," and "represent an opportunity for pediatricians to join with parents and students, as well as other advocates for child nutrition, to raise an awareness of the importance of nutritional choices for children and adolescents," according to the 2015 AAP statement.

One of the best ways to change a school's nutritional environment is by creating or reviewing its wellness policy, says Margaret Read, a research associate at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut.

By 2006, every school was required to have one, though the specifics of each policy can vary.

In a review of the wellness policies in Utah's 41 school districts, the Deseret News found a spectrum ranging from basic one page-policies to lengthy, detailed policies. Regarding unregulated class treats, some policies encouraged adherence to federal Smart Snack standards (rules for food sold to kids in school outside of the cafeteria) while some encouraged non-food items and others simply left snack decisions up to the parents and/or teachers.

If parents want a stronger nutrition policy in their school, Read encouraged them to contact their school or district and ask about it. Parents can also join with other parents to use their collective voices to ask for change.

'Small wins'

For Arcara, a healthful, low-sugar lifestyle is business as usual. With gluten-intolerance and celiac issues in their family, her kids are used to extra veggies and creative homemade lunches, like BBQ chicken nachos made with date-sweetened BBQ sauce.

But she's well aware that not every family thinks that way, so she's flexible when planning class parties.

"Im not so strict that I wont give (the kids) anything," says Arcara, who is also a gluten-free health coach. "But I think if you give all junk, then thats all they're going to take."

For Christmas, her daughter's class had a Holiday Hawaiian Luau, with tropical fruit, healthy popsicles and then did the limbo. One year, their big end-of-the-year party was a drive-in-movie theme with homemade popcorn and add-ins like mini M&Ms and dried fruit, or dried herbs, cheese and sea salt. "The kids were thrilled," she says.

These are examples of what Muller with Healthy Action for Kids calls "small wins."

Stomping into a school with a campaign to "eliminate sugar at class parties" will make other parents run in the opposite direction when they see you in the hallways, says Muller.

Instead, Action for Healthy Kids encourages parents to think about creating new traditions rather than just axing current ones like a watermelon social instead of an ice-cream social and hopefully opinions will begin to change.

But it's not easy to break with tradition.

Ellen Treanor grew up on wheat bread and her dad kept tofu in the fridge, and while she thought him "the weirdest dad ever" she too grew up to be a health-minded mom who grows her own vegetables and eats plates of greens for dinner.

When she brought in fruits and veggies for her daughter's 7th birthday, the kids loved the "ants on a log" pieces of peanut butter-filled celery with raisins on top, but were hesitant about the sugar snap peas and carrots. They weren't even persuaded by the colorful toothpicks to pick up apple slices and bananas.

Despite initial support from the other moms for her healthy approach, Treanor, who has had kids attend schools in both Los Angeles and Cedar City, said she felt it was more "lip service" as she saw future play date snacks consist of mini Snickers bars and a token bowl of wrinkly, week-old baby carrots.

"I felt like I was a pariah and had been shunned for being the healthy mom," she said with a sigh. "There wasnt a lot of support among the other moms to keep the healthy food going."

And that's where the majority of support must come from, says Muller.

"If parents understand how important (healthy eating) is to their student's performance and they get that link, then they're more likely to ask for these things," Muller says. "We're (not) fighting the administration, it's everyone in the school community that we're trying to engage on this issue, to come together on this."

To learn more:


American Academy of Pediatrics

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

Wellness Policy links:

Local School Wellness Policy Outreach Toolkit | Food and Nutrition Service
Local School Wellness Policy Outreach Toolkit | Food and Nutrition Service

Model Policies ~ Model School Wellness Policies