Food for Thought: What if food wasn’t a part of school celebrations?

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A month ago, the school my kids’ happily attend announced that this year they will be enforcing the school district’s policy regarding the food that parents bring into classrooms for parties, special events, birthdays, etc. Our school is a wonderful place with lots of parent involvement, extracurricular opportunities, hands-on explorative learning, dedication to the arts, I could go on and on.

We also have LOTS of parties and celebrations. We don’t miss a chance to celebrate. And parties at our school mean food. In the past I’ve seen: cute crafty homemade snacks and treats straight out of Pinterest, trays of local seasonal fruits and veggies, cultural delights from around the world, and often times whatever a frantic mom or dad could grab on their way to school to be ready for the potluck they forgot all about.

Under the new (to us) policy, all food and beverages served must now be prepared or purchased through a facility that has a health permit. Parents may not bring in home-prepared food items for student consumption, however food items may be purchased from a grocery store, restaurant or other facility with a health permit.

This caused quite a stir at our back-to-school meeting – and change is hard, so it’s certainly understandable. For those of us who are attempting to keep processed foods out of the mouths of our kids and get real foods in, this seems to weight things in the processed foods’ favor. To purchase from a certified facility the foods I’d like my kiddos to be eating will be more expensive, use more packaging and take away many healthy fresh options. Bummer.

But here’s the thing, and something I’ve been simmering on for a few years… What if we just took food out of school celebrations, special events and incentives altogether? My reasoning:

1. Kids need quality nutrient-rich foods to be at their best at school. It makes no sense to me to give them anything else during these hours that we have such high expectations for their learning and behavior.

2. I want my kids to learn that fun can be had without treats. We can celebrate successes and big days with dancing, games, hugs, special activities or even just a positive word from someone we love. My kids have come to expect a treat with every little thing that happens in their life. Though I roll my eyes at them, it’s not really their fault that they feel this way. {Lisa Leake at 100 Days of Real Food is making strides at her children’s school, asking teachers to use non-junk food alternatives for celebrations and incentives. I love following her progress.}

3. What every kid can eat is different. From the obvious severe food allergies that are the driving force behind this policy, to kids that are sensitive to the effects of chemicals, and those that overeat the junk because they are getting hungry. [Who are then not hungry once they get home and are offered nutritious after school snacks – making them a real joy as they crash right before dinnertime… but I digress.] And not to mention family preferences and all the different choices that each family makes on food.

4. I want to be the one who gets to share food and treat traditions with my kids. I want to make heart cookies with them on Valentine’s Day, enjoy clean Shamrock shakes on St Patty’s Day, go out to froyo on a Friday after school just because it’s Friday. In fact, truth be told, I want to have dessert – my way – pretty much every night. But I don’t choose to do this, because so many days (and certainly most holidays) they have already had some “special” treat at school and I’m attempting to be somewhat conservative in how much refined sugar/artificial flavors/colors their little building bodies consume.

You know what kind of food I want in my kids’ school? Food Literacy. Introduction to whole healthy foods. The power of building up young bodies with nutrients. The joy of vegetables grown with your two little hands.

A list could be made of the value food adds to special times in schools. I would probably agree with many of the points, such as the power of breaking bread with someone to develop community, the sensory exploration of taste, and the value of free food for children at school with not enough to eat. That’s the reason the issue is so challenging… there is no perfect solution. It comes down to what is most important to each of us as parents and as a community.

Where do you stand on this issue? All opinions welcomed as long as you aren’t nasty towards others. :)


Wish to support an organization that brings food literacy to schools? The California Food Literacy Center brought experiential food literacy to 2,400 students last year. If you are interested/able, find a way to support the California Food Literacy Center’s efforts.

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9 thoughts on “Food for Thought: What if food wasn’t a part of school celebrations?

  1. This is a very thoughtful start on a much needed conversation. Completely agree that we should be teaching other ways to celebrate than with sugary “treats”. Schools should be a place where we model and encourage the best practices for a healthy and intelligent lifestyle. We need to raise awareness and be supportive of healthy choices. This is not an easy task and discussions like this need to be had, to get more people to see the bigger issues.

  2. as of this year, our kids’ public school has banned bringing food for celebrations. They encourage the child to bring something ‘special’ in their own lunchbox for their lunch on their special day, but no food is allowed to share in classrooms (whether purchased or home made). It was sort of a bummer for the kids and teachers at first, but everyone seems to have adjusted ok. Parents have brought in little things like goody bag toys, pencils, stickers and the teachers still honor the birthday person or the reward in class. I like it because I fully associate food with celebration/reward but am trying to find ways to break that association for my children and this is a good step towards that. It was not done for that reason, it was done due to the unfortunate death of a child due to allergies, but it will still break that association a tad. I do see that the kids are not nearly as excited to celebrate their accomplishments or birthdays in class now though….hopefully that will change as this becomes more of the norm. Great topic for discussion!

    • Ally, thanks so much for adding to the discussion! It’s so interesting to hear about an example of a school that has made this change. I think it is really fascinating how much of a big deal the topic has become. Hopefully parents and schools can shake this stuff out to come to a good place that cares for children in the best (and safest) way possible.

      **And I love the encouragement for the parents to put something special in their child’s lunch for their birthday. I brought my son sushi to school for lunch for his past two birthdays and it’s now one of his favorite parts of his special day.

  3. When I was little, celebrations included one cupcake or dessert type item. Our children’s school definitely goes above and beyond in the food department when it comes to parties. Honestly the valentine’s or winter celebration spreads put the thanksgiving meal to shame. Lol I love that our parents are so involved and willing to contribute, but maybe parties could involve everyone bringing an item about the holiday, then give them a glue gun and let then create a master piece to be auctioned/raffled off. I can think of a ton of ways to make this art project fun and challenging for the older kids. I also think by having too much food at these parties causes the kids to over eat as many times the celebrations are after lunch. Thanks Jenn for another well written article; thought provoking and blood pressure rising. ;)

    • Sorry about that blood pressure :).

      I love the cool craft idea. Why is this issue so heated? Because it feels that way to me too. I guess it’s always challenging to challenge traditions. Keep working on those party ideas – I think you’re on to something.

  4. I love the fact that families can share their home cooked traditions at school, during parties, potlucks, etc. I think it’s great for kids to see all the diversity and to try new things. Sharing food together is part of building community.
    But, if we have to get generic food from the grocery store, I’d rather just not have food at all. I’m okay with a child making cookies (with love) to hand out on his/her birthday. My daughter spends HOURS planning and decorating cupcakes for special occasions and it obviously brings her joy. But handing out junk food from the store is somehow just junk food to me.
    Joanie recently posted…Food for Thought: What if food wasn’t a part of school celebrations?My Profile

    • Thanks for sharing. Love the idea of kids making their own treats with love and care for their friends. Might have to do some of that in our out-of-school time. :)

  5. I absolutely LOVE the way you write Jenn. These are all things I have thought of myself, but I admit not as eloquently as you have. I haven’t been able to put my finger on it but as soon as I read your point of teaching the kids not to always use “treats” as the reward I knew that was what I have been trying to figure out how to do. It completely resonated with me. I think that some parents (especially at my kids’ school) don’t recognize the fine line between home and school. I am not sure if that makes sense. I just think there are parents that want their “little Jakey” (not a reference to anyone in particular) to be rewarded at school the same way they are at home and coddled through things. But it SHOULD be different. Kids should see school as a place that can be challenging AND fun, but most definitely a place to learn. When I was a kid we didn’t have these elaborate parties AT school every month or even every quarter. I am pretty sure we only did it once (to celebrate the end of the school year) and we turned out just fine! Everything in moderation! Thanks again Jenn. I am clearly not as good with my words as you are. I would love you to represent me/speak for me any time when these sorts of conversations come up at school. :-)

    • Thanks for the support! I’m hoping we can slowly shift the school culture norm by doing things differently when we have small or big opportunities. There appear to be more people who care about this issue out there then I initially thought, so we will see where this all leads… :)

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