Sarah Palin and Birthday Sweets Redux

Yesterday I posted a news item about Sarah Palin’s publicity stunt of bringing 200 sugar cookies to a Pennsylvania school to protest the proposed regulations in that state which will limit sweets in school for classroom and holiday parties.  There were quite a lot of comments generated by that post, both here and on Facebook and Twitter, and I’d like to take a minute to respond to a few of them.

Why Pay Palin Any Attention?

School food activist Dr. Susan Rubin (for whom I have great respect) questions why I even gave Ms. Palin the “air time” (so to speak).  On Facebook, she wrote:  “She’s just looking for publicity.  Let’s NOT give it to her. we’ve got more important work to do,” and she left a similar comment on TLT.

My response is that Sarah Palin is unfortunately not alone in bringing muddled libertarian arguments into this particular arena.  Let’s not forget that in my own adopted state of Texas, the legislature was successfully prevailed upon a few years ago to pass a “safe cupcake amendment” which preserved parents’ God-given right to bring sweets to school on a child’s birthday.  And my original post on this topic, “The Birthday Cupcake Debate Heats Up,” was written in response to a self-proclaimed libertarian TLT reader holding similar views.  So rather than ignore Palin, I say it’s far better to bring this faulty reasoning out into the light for open discussion and critique.

Why Not Worry Less About Cookies and More About School Lunch and Exercise?

Readers Suzannah and Nutritioulicious both felt that the classroom treat should be preserved and that more focus should be placed on increasing PE and improving school lunches.  I don’t disagree in principle, but in today’s reality, lunch is often pizza or nuggets, and PE may come around only once every seven school days.  Until those problems are rectified, classroom sweets are compounding the problem.  I would ban them altogether (for the reasons stated below) but if we have to have treats, I say let’s put them on hiatus until we come closer to that ideal school environment with healthy lunches and more physical activity.

Lighten Up.  Treats Are Called “Treats” for a Reason.

Suzannah also stressed that “treats are special occasion foods” and Nutritioulicious agreed, saying,”I don’t think the answer to childhood nutrition issues is to ban sweets for special occasions. . . . Kids (and adults) need to learn how to live a healthy life while still being able to enjoy special treats on occasion.”  Reader Greg added,

. . . special occasions are precisely when the rules ought to be relaxed — that helps to establish them as special — and provided we get away from the culture of “every day is special”, its not as if you’d be exposing kids to unhealthy food all the time.

My problem here is that sugary foods are such a constant in our children’s lives these days — far more than when I was a kid in the 1970s — that the idea of the “special” birthday “treat” is almost meaningless.

First of all, as I calculated in “The Birthday Cupcake Debate Heats Up,” my own children are served a birthday treat about 1/7th of the instructional school year (for my daughter, it’s 1/6 of the year, due to her large class size.)  Moreover, my children frequently receive candy from friends during the school day and even from teachers who pass it out after the school bell rings (a clever way of evading our district’s Wellness Policy.)  Then there’s the fact that these days no activity can be convened for children without the provision of a snack, which is almost invariably junk.  By way of example, just this past Saturday, my daughter was plied with Rice Krispie treats, cheddar Goldfish, and Capri Sun juice pouches as a mid-morning snack at a dance clinic she attended.

I would argue that when one in three children are already overweight, we don’t have the luxury of viewing any individual treat in a vacuum anymore.  A cupcake isn’t just a cupcake in 2010.

If the Shoe Fits . . .

Greg also wrote:

The nanny-state charge can easily be avoided by not acting and talking in such as way as to deservedly have it apply. Palin can be fast and loose with that charge — for ideological reasons which are often boneheaded — but the charge might well fit. The nanny state embodies a micro-managing, choice-eliminating, self-righteous stance. The proponents of these food bans should take a close look at themselves to see whether they exhibit that.

I’m not sure if Greg was obliquely referring to me, a proponent of such a ban, with this comment, but here’s where I would disagree with him.

A cupcake ban, rather than being “choice-eliminating” is in fact “choice-creating.”  That is to say, if you’re a true libertarian, presumably you would support the idea of each parent taking full control over the feeding of his/her own child, free from interference by others parents.   Pro-cupcake parents never seem to pause to consider the fact that by bringing their treats to school, they are potentially trampling on the rights of all other parents in that class who might object.    (This is nowhere more evident than in the case of parents with food-allergic children who are literally begging for an end to the treat onslaught, as I’ve learned by dropping in on this site now and then.)

Of course, it’s true that we can always demand that our kids decline the offered treat.  But as I wrote to the pro-cupcake parent in my original cupcake post:

. . . why should I be put in the position of asking that of a seven year old, glassy-eyed with envy as 24 of his peers sit around him, licking cupcake frosting off their fingers?  Just to accommodateyour inalienable right to celebrate a birthday with sweets on a school campus — sweets which could be enjoyed at your off-site party instead, or a birthday which could be celebrated in the classroom with dollar store toys, healthy food or the other items suggested by readers here?  I guess I’m not sure why your rights necessarily trump mine in this case.

Finally, while I’m sure many anti-cupcake parents are self-righteous, as Greg states, many of us are simply asking, why can’t we just live and let live?   And many of us are the opposite of rigid Food Nazis — to the contrary, one reason why we so hate the birthday cupcake is because it often deprives us of the chance to give our children our own sugary treats, something we thoroughly enjoy.

*  *  *

OK, those are my thoughts on the comments to the Palin post.  If you want to keep the debate going, I’ll certainly post any new ideas as they come in.

As an aside, I now understand why the media (of any political bent) love Sarah Palin: the woman is ratings gold, people.  I put her up on TLT yesterday and received the highest ever readership since launching the blog.

I’m going to have to drop her name around here a LOT more often.  :-)


  1. says

    (Just left this comment on yesterday’s post, then saw this, so I’ll add it here, too.)

    I think too many people miss the bigger point about birthday treats in school. And that is this: If it were just birthday treats in school, we’d be right to call foul. But it’s not. Far from it.

    As I wrote in a post on my blog about Halloween candy: “It’s not just one day a year. It’s Halloween night and class parties and community events and then the winter holidays and Valentine’s Day and Easter and birthday parties and swimming class and soccer games and the bank and the shoe store and restaurants with kid menus and the grandparents’ house and anyplace else kids set foot, including, of course, school. The sugar culture is so strong, the highly processed foodstuffs so epidemic, that we no longer have the luxury of viewing these things in isolation. It’s not just a few Halloween treats or one blue cupcake. It’s a crushing pile of chemical-laden pseudo food. And at some point we just have to make it stop.”

    To people who fondly recall their own childhoods filled with Twinkies and white bread: Yes, we all played outside more. But the food now is also very different than it was back then. It’s far more chemicalized and processed. And think about it: Did we have neon-frosted birthday cupcakes in school every week? Or Gatorade and donut holes after every soccer practice? Or party goody bags loaded with candy? Or Happy Meals for dinner on a regular basis?

    No, of course not. But a lot of kids these days do. Kids face a very different food culture than we did. Greg above wrote: “provided we get away from the culture of ‘every day is special,’ it’s not as if you’d be exposing kids to unhealthy food all the time.” But see, that’s exactly the problem: We do have that culture, and without common-sense limits like the one proposed in Pennsylvania, it will only get worse.

  2. Eilee says

    I am confused. When did we give up the right to regulate ourselves? Why do we have to have laws made to make sure that we use common sense? I think that a sensible alternative to all this would be if the teachers/principals instituted a tradition of celebrating community birthdays on a certain day each month (or two weeks or what ever works for the community)
    And Why can’t the parents work together and encourage each other, to consider a healthy choice. Maybe the school could pool healthy choices in a community cookbook, that the students could take pride in. Alternates to allergy-foods could be included. We have a school cookbook as a fund-raiser and there were plenty of healthy recipes that parents submitted, that could be used for the occasional celebration.
    Peer pressure can be used for good too, ya’ know.
    But legislating common sense just pisses people off. Look at the seat belt issue. Most people know it makes sense to use baby seats and car seats and seat belts, but instead of getting people to use them because it is in their best interest, we have allowed our “Big Nanny” to legislate restraints. But kids still don’t wear them on the buses and people are still ticketed for not wearing a seat belt. I say go at these good ideas a different way. Make it cool to make good choices.

    • Renee says

      But no one is trying to regulate you in the privacy of your own home. We’re talking about public schools here –places where people from many different backgrounds gather. Trying to set policies and laws that help protect people in public institutions is not a “nanny state”.

      Your analogy with seatbelts is interesting –one of the reasons the seat belt law is important is because the public often pays (through taxes) for medical care down the road when someone is badly hurt in an accident. Cutting down on how badly people gets hurt saves our whole society money in the long run.

      The same thing is true with public health: keeping kids healthy serves all our interests, and that’s precisely where laws are so important.

  3. bettina elias siegel says

    Christina — Precisely! Somewhere along the line, the treat became the everyday. And if anyone doubts the veracity of that statement, just look at our children. – Bettina

  4. says

    schools can (and should) create limits that promote moderation, but a complete moratorium on sweets is draconian and unnecessary, and it’s not the role of the state to mandate these “cupcake bans.”

    kids shouldn’t have candy every day or parties every week, but i maintain that infrequent treats are fun. PTAs and school administrators should be the ones doing the (moderate) limiting. we don’t need laws about what kinds of “treats” are appropriate in schools–and i’m not even a libertarian/conservative!

    for the record, i agree with you about the junk food after active sports classes, etc. how unnecessary–and defeating–to close a time of exercise with empty calories! also, i think it’s important for kids to know that “treats” aren’t just food–“special” shouldn’t mean sugar.

    my kids are little–so i haven’t personally dealt with much of what you are describing–but it does make me crazy when even at the church nursery they ply her with as many snacks as she can stuff in her little mouth. we do need to be cautious about feeding other people’s kids; i just don’t want the state–or anyone really–to impose all-out, fun-squelching bans. i think we can do A LOT better for our kids, but i’m not a fan of legislating it, at least when it comes to classroom snacks.

  5. bettina elias siegel says

    To Eilee and Suzannah:

    I love the idea of a community getting together and establishing local norms on these issues. The problem is, I’m not seeing that happen in practice. For example, under current USDA regs, each district is supposed to form a wellness policy to regulate precisely these issues, but I speak from experience when I say that virtually no one in my district actually knows of the policy’s existence or contents, and those that do seem to have no problem ignoring it.

    And Eilee – I would take issue with your seat belt analogy. Before seat belt laws, when we left it up to people’s “common sense” and “self interest,” there were actually far more automobile deaths than there are today. I know that many would disagree that sweets at school pose the same public safety risk as driving unbelted, and that’s a fair argument (although if we look at obesity-related health care costs – $150 billion — I’m not sure it holds up.) But do you really believe that regulation for pubic health policy reasons is never necessary, or always backfires?


  6. says

    I think one of the bottom lines here is that when you and work with MDs on then leading edge of medical science, and they tell you what the outcome of a hyper sugar environment is (be it school,restaurant, neighbors or whatever) you become respectfully sober very fast. I have had the privilege throughout this year of working with some extremely bright minds in functional medicine – Dr Sue Rubin knows them well in the NY area. Drs Cowan, Bock and Dillard all prax functional medicine. They all unabashedly agree that our food choices and food supply are literally killing us (although our groundwater a la fracking is stepping right on in to take over). Drs Bock and Cowan together stood on a stage in NYC this year and said “we have a nation of children who are drunk and stoned, literally from the food they are consuming.” Ken Bock’s work in spectrum disorders is nothing short of genius. It is a profound read. I recommend every practitioner and every parent who can, read his book (Ending the New Childhood Epidemics). We are the defense for our children because they have no defense. Keep treats to the home environment. Let schools be a place of nurturing of minds and bodies. Keep eating to a school lunch designated time and let school lunch be nurturing, nutritious and void of the veryh susbstances that medical science says loud and clear “do biological harm” to our bodies and our children’s bodies. Period. This is a free country. You can do whatever you like with your food, but this constant barrage of treats in schools should be halted. Schools are for learning and for nurturing a future society. They should be an outlet for constant parties which parents must subscribed to, feel guilty about, feel they have to conform with or whatever. Keep the treats, snacks, parties and celebrations at home. This way, there is no argument about food outside of lunch at schools

  7. says

    We need to find a way for school administrators to listen to smart pediatricians like Dr. Steve Cowan about sugar. Its not an empty calorie as the USDA, the food industry and most dietitians believe.
    It is a highly addictive anti-nutrient that impacts behavior and learning.
    I set up a conference for key school decision makers for 34 school districts many years back. Dr. Cowan, Ann Cooper, Kate Adamick and others spoke to this audience. Wish I had video tape, because what they said still holds true today.
    We are missing the essential point. Schools are for learning, so why not start with teaching the teachers and administrators to look beyond the defunct USDA pyramid?

  8. says

    I haven’t yet read your original cupcake post, but I’m confident I will agree with you.

    I just had this argument with a grandma on the playground after school the other day.

    Because my son has nut allergies, we are ULTRA sensitive to school parties. I bet many parents don’t even know when a child is part of a birthday celebration at school. But my kid ends up reporting to me when it happens because he usually can’t eat the “yummy” treat that’s been sent in.

    This is what I said to the grandma who said, “what’s the big deal? Kids will be kids.”

    Me: “I don’t begrudge a child a birthday celebration or birthday cake. I just don’t think both need to happen at school. Let the child where a birthday crown or even bestow some other honor on the child (in the case of older students) for the day. But when a class has 25 kids in it, you’re talking about 25 school days with birthday cake. Of course, then there’s Halloween and Thanksgiving and Christmas and Diwali and Valentine’s Day. Then there’s the 100th Day of School celebration and the bake sales and the day the teacher rewards the kids with Sweet Tarts and Tootsie Pops.

    So, far this year my son has also had two ‘goodbye parties’ for kids who have moved away. All of which had candy, gum and cupcakes.

    That no longer becomes a special occasion. It becomes a 1/4 of the school year.

    Give me a friggin’ break.”

  9. mom of 3 says

    I seem to be in the minority here but I have no problem with my kids eating “junk food”. They are healthy, not at all overweight, in fact I have a hard time finding pants that fit their skinny frame. I do not want them eating junk all the time and it is my job as the parent to decide-not yours. I read someone say something to the effect of why should my wanting the cupcakes trump your right not to have them. I would answer back why should your right trump mine? Junk food is not evil-parental control trumps all. No government has the right to tell me what I can and cannot feed my kids. I’m sympathetic to parents of allergy kids but that can be worked around-make something they can eat or tell the parent you are bringing treats and have the parent bring something for that child. It isn’t an everyday thing no matter how many kids there are in the class so relax. If you make food out to be good or evil then when kids grow up they will gravitate toward the junk. I have cookies and fruit at all times in my kitchen and my kids choose both in equal amounts. Relax everyone.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Well, Mom of 3, first of all, welcome to TLT if you haven’t been here before. Let me start by saying that no food is demonized in my house, either, and if you’re a regular reader of TLT you know that I’m actually a HUGE fan of the cupcake (obsessed, some might say!). And I absolutely agree that the government has no role in telling you what to feed your own children.

      But as I say in this post, and as set out perhaps even better in my very first stab at this subject, “The Birthday Cupcake Debate Heats Up,” when you bring cupcakes TO SCHOOL (not your home, not a party, but a place where my kid HAS to be all day), then you’re not just feeding your kid, suddenly you’re feeding MY kid.

      Your response is, well, why not? Why shouldn’t I have that right? And my answer is, OK, let’s weigh the possible concerns on each side of the scale. On your side, it’s the desire to have your child’s birthday (1) celebrated (2) in class and (3) with a sugary treat. I can happily give you (1) and (2) — go wild in class with something non food related, but, no, you want to fight for all three. Fine.

      Now let’s look at my side. Maybe my child is already overweight (one in three American kids are, so this isn’t a stretch) and I’m legitimately concerned about excess calories in his diet. Maybe my child’s allergic to your food. (You say, just “work around” that, but the moms of food-allergic kids tell me this means they have to either rush off to school to supply a safe treat or have their child feel excluded — which he probably already does in either case, sitting there with his “different” food). Maybe my family follows dietary rules for religious reasons and can’t eat your cupcake. Maybe (as is the case in my own home) I really love giving my kid treats (see above re: cupcake love) but when my kid comes home full of your treats (and in our school it’s not uncommon, especially in late spring, for TWO families to send treats on a single day to celebrate upcoming summer birthdays), then I’m either preempted by you or we have to exceed what I consider a reasonable amount of sugar. Bottom line, no matter how kooky you think I am or how off the wall my issues might seem to you, you can’t deny that by sending your treat, you’re making it a lot harder for me to raise and feed my child as I see fit, the very right you asserted in your comment. (“it is my job as the parent to decide-not yours”). That’s all on my side of the scale.

      On your side, we have the desire to have (3) when you already have (1) and (2), AND you can have (3), your sugary treat, in any other locale – in your home, at a restaurant, at your birthday party, wherever.

      So, is that really fair? I guess you know how I come out. Have I changed your mind?

      • mom of 3 says

        Not really. I do understand your point of view and I am not totally unsympathetic to your cause. However, I still feel that too big a deal is being made about the dangers of “junk” food- but as with everything to each his own.

  10. says

    As a teacher, I see both sides of this argument. Parents want their child to be able to celebrate their birthday with friends at school without having to pay for all of those friends to have what has apparently become the requisite birthday party meal, cake, ice cream, treat bag, activities, etc. Cupcakes seem like an inexpensive alternative, and teachers don’t really feel a lot of power to tell parents no if there is not an overarching school policy. Parents purchase what their children like or what is easiest for them; many schools have policies against bringing in homemade treats. It’s a real quandary for a teacher who doesn’t touch blue-iced storebought cupcakes with a 10-foot pole!

    The other side of the coin is the parent who prefers for their child to avoid treats. I am not a parent yet but my husband and I operate on a policy that we do not waste fat & calories on food that doesn’t taste good. I would prefer to feed my own children treats that are, in a relative manner of speaking, wholesome. What if I’ve planned a special homemade treat at home and my child has been given a food-dye and additive laden cupcake at school? Do I go ahead and let my kid have 2 treats? Or do I forget about the homemade treat made from fairly unadulterated ingredients?

    There really is no easy answer!

  11. MamaRalf says

    I completely agree with you Bettina! “Treat” is a misnomer. Unless we are at home, unhealthy food is almost always the default (not by my choice, by the way; it’s always other parents bringing things to soccer, dance, gymnastics, school, etc.).

    I take issue with Mom of 3 for many reasons – first of all, congratulations on your skinny kids but just because they are skinny now doesn’t mean they are going to be skinny (or healthy) adults. How do you know that allowing too much access to all the “junk” food now isn’t going to make it really hard for them to eat healthy as adults? I will just share my own history to explain why I am so determined to promote a healthy attitude toward healthy food for my kids. I was a skinny kid and so were my siblings. We ate junk and weren’t really limited very much. We self-regulated as I think most kids will do but we didn’t really eat real food very much and never got used to it. We were active and I remember eating at fast food places a lot after games, etc. But when I got to high school and college and all the pressure of being skinny/attractive started, I was completely lost. I tried really hard to eat “healthy” (although I really didn’t even understand how) and lose weight, even though looking back I didn’t need to, but it just made me obsessed with food. In addition, I was SO used to junk food being the norm that I didn’t know how to operate any differently. Anyway, back to the food obsession, I became bulimic mid-way through college and had a hard time with relationships and a hard time eating anything without extreme guilt. I still carry all of that today and am desperately trying not to pass that on to my children.

    While I certainly am not trying to imply that you are only feeding your kids junk and not trying to provide and encourage healthy choices, I just think that you (and countless others) focus on the wrong thing. People think that just because their kid isn’t overweight that they don’t need to look at what kind of habits they are promoting. And it really bothers me when I feel that people who have skinny or small kids think they have it all figured out and look down on me or other parents of kids who might not be “skinny.” I think it just highlights our culture’s obsession with weight and appearance. While weight is certainly a component of health, it is not the only one!!!

    And when you say “why should your right trump mine? Junk food is not evil-parental control trumps all. No government has the right to tell me what I can and cannot feed my kids.” It doesn’t make sense. Nobody is telling you what you can and cannot feed your kids. They are telling you what you can’t feed OTHER kids. It’s a huge difference. You can feed your kid whatever you want and accordingly, NOT feed your kid whatever you don’t want. That is exactly what Bettina’s post is saying.

    The truth is that junk food is way too available and present in our world. I definitely allow my kids access to it but have a hard time figuring out a balance. To me, it’s hard because too much sugar is dangerous and addictive and chemicals, pesticides, etc. are dangerous too. Why should people feel bad for not wanting their children poisoned?! And why has it become the norm to be feeding our children so horribly??

    I don’t think this would even be an issue if junk food wasn’t EVERYWHERE. And while I think on the surface it seems ridiculous to ban sweets, why is it such a big deal??? There are a million other opportunities outside of school to get your junk fix.

    I apologize that this is so scattered; I’m trying to be quick!

  12. Annemarie says

    Wow. so, I’m having a sort of mini food revolution myself, personally, and this blog comes at such a great time. I’m absolutely a foodie, and one of the hardest parts of trying to eat more healthily is fitting my foodie lifestyle into healthy eating. More importantly, I’m a mother now, to a beautiful almost-two year old, and eating right has suddenly become so much more important. People are encouraging my attempt at losing the ton of weight I want to lose, and it’s hard to explain to them that this isn’t about losing weight so much as its about changing my entire lifestyle when it comes to eating and feeding my family.
    The reason I’m responding to this, though, is that i have a confession to make. I am a teacher of sixth graders, and I must say that in my seven years of teaching it never occurred to me to think past the reception of the treat. What I mean is I knew treats made my students happy. I bring treats in about five times a year, if that, although the clemtines I give them for PSSA testing some don’t consider a treat. We have a pizza party to celebrate reading Olympics, and every time we have a fundraising competition the winning team gets an ice cream party (that I have nothing to do with!). It never occurred to me the violation I was committing, and I truly mean that. My job is to educate, and yes, providing treats here and there is great. Bt reading these comments and this article has completely changed the way I’m viewing my treat-giving! It never occur to me that i Might have students who have parents desperately trying to save them by teaching them proper nutrition, and it never occurred to me that providing treats might interfere with that.
    I’m a little confused by some comments – no one is entitled to cupcakes, and I think, honestly, the idea of getting creative with treats for the classroom and using non-food rewards is so important. I can’t wait to try and think of something clever for our next reward!

  13. Alex says

    I know this is an older post, but I feel its an important one. Aside from the issue of who has the right to feed whom, school should be about learning. All of this celebrating of birthdays and every holiday simply takes away from the education environment. This blog recently posted about the 2 girls in Minnesota writing about only getting a 15 minute lunch break. I am assuming that the school district is limited time for lunches partially to get in enough instructional time to make sure all students can pass all of those standardized tests. If we eliminate some of this celebrating personal special days in class time, we might have more time for instruction!
    When I was in elementary school, we had an hour of PE every day. We had an hour for lunch and recess, every day, and we still managed to get in all the core education instruction as well as music and art. I was educated well enough in public school that in 7th grade, I scored high enough on SATs to be admitted to most colleges. So I am not sure what is being taught now that takes up so much time….but regardless, with enlarged class sizes, there are too many children for having constant class celebrations. It is distracting our teachers from teaching, it disrupts the learning process, and since these celebrations seem to include massive amounts of sugar, logic says that the children are going to be too hyper to concentrate on schoolwork for any immediate future to these celebrations.
    I live in Germany now, in Bavaria, where the schoolday just went from 8:30am til 1:30pm, with only two short 15 minute breaks to 8:30am til 3:30pm, and I am not sure how they are dealing with a lunch break at this point. My partner, who grew up here, says that they never had school lunch when he was growing up, and that such things as birthday celebrations were, just as I have stated above, the sort of distractions they really just didn’t have time for in the educational day. I will add that they recently made the day longer, not because they aren’t getting everything taught in the time they did previously, but because previously students went to grade 13 and now they only go through grade 12 before graduation.
    My point really, is that let us get rid of the whole celebration in school that takes away from the institution of learning. It seems to me the rest of the debate is a bit of a moot point…school is for learning not for playing, this is not day care, it is life preparation.

    • Stacy says

      Alex…could not have said it better. I don’t know why parents feel it is their right to impose personal celebrations at school which detract from learning time.


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