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The not-so-sweet life: Schools eliminate classroom treats

Created: Saturday, October 22, 2011 5:30 a.m. CDT
Updated: Thursday, November 3, 2011 12:14 p.m. CDT

GENEVA – Heartland kindergarten student Leyna Yonehara wasn’t able to bite into a birthday cake as she celebrated her sixth birthday Friday at Heartland Elementary School.

But with the encouragement of her classmates, she placed six candles atop the “virtual” cake affixed to the felt board. Heartland Principal Adam Law joined in the celebration by giving the 6-year-old a pencil emblazoned with her name.

Geneva schools this fall banned cakes and other sweets at classroom birthday parties as part of the district’s new food guidelines. Law said the new guidelines were implemented because of a concern for children with food allergies and diabetes as well as to promote a culture of wellness in the schools.

“We still want classroom parties to be fun, but we also need to be responsible with how we use food,” Law said.

Law sent a letter to parents this fall stating that if parents still wanted to send a non-edible “treat” as part of a birthday celebration, they could include such items as pencils or erasers, or a gift for the classroom.

The new food guidelines also state that food no longer would be used as a reward or incentive for student achievement. Instead, classroom incentives and rewards will be in the form of nonfood items and extra activities.

Law said he hasn’t heard from any parents who object to the new guidelines.

“We haven’t heard a lot from students and parents, but the feedback we have received has been positive,” Law said.

Food will continue to be allowed at the upcoming Halloween and winter holiday classroom parties, however. Like in the past, the parties will be coordinated with parents in order to ensure the safety of those students with food allergies and other health issues, he said.

Law also said parent-provided healthy daily snacks will still be allowed.

Heartland parent Jennifer Main said she is 100 percent behind the new food policies. She has two children who go to Heartland.

“Sugar is a treat in our house, not something we eat every day,” Main said. “We know so many kids that have diabetes and food allergies.”

Her daughter, 9-year-old Olivia, said she doesn’t mind that she can’t eat cake at school birthday parties anymore.

“I still like birthday cake,” she said.

And Olivia said they still have fun at birthday parties at Heartland.

“We sing ‘Happy Birthday’ as they pick out a gift card and we watch them open the gift card,” she said.

Geneva School District’s new food guidelines fit in with Kane County’s Making Kane County Fit for Kids initiative.

“We want to see local organizations and schools setting polices that promote healthy lifestyles across the population,” Fit for Kids coordinator Jane Maxwell said.

Maxwell agreed that food, especially sweets, shouldn’t be used as a reward or incentive.

“There are so many other ways to encourage good behavior, such as extra recess,” Maxwell said.

Geneva School District isn’t the first district in Kane County to ban birthday sweets. Kaneland School District implemented a similar policy four years ago.

“We wanted to minimize the amount of sugar and non-healthy treats that we were presenting to kids,” Kaneland School Superintendent Jeff Schuler said. “And with a rise in students with food allergies, it became more and more difficult to monitor food items.”

Kaneland students have alternatives, however, if they want to celebrate a classmate’s birthday.

“Students are encouraged to bring in a non-food item or a book or something that could be donated to the classroom,” Schuler said.

Batavia and St. Charles school districts do not ban birthday party sweets, but they discourage them.

“It’s really up to the classroom teacher and the school principal,” St. Charles School District spokesperson Jim Blaney said. “A lot of the schools have discouraged all the sugary sweets and are looking for healthier snacks.”

Batavia School District’s policy reflects a similar philosophy.

“Our policy reflects a commitment to healthy living,” said Brad Newkirk, the district’s chief academic officer. “We encourage healthy snacks and birthday treats.”

And parents are getting the message, which is why Newkirk doesn’t see the district going to a complete ban like Geneva and Kaneland have done.

“It seems to be making an impact on the choices that are being made,” he said.

Food guidelines

Geneva and Kaneland both prohibit birthday treats in the form of food items. Batavia and St. Charles school districts don't, but encourage healthy treats and snacks.

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