If You Give A Kid A Cupcake: A Comment on the Bakesale Brouhaha

Through a very sophisticated mathematical calculation, I have figured out that I have baked 1,532 cupcakes, cookies and little gooey pecan thingies for school bake sales. I hated every minute, but I did my tour of duty. And yes, I cheered when the last of my kids hit middle school and it became uncool for his mom to show up with cupcakes for any reason. But even I am horrified that bake sales are on the chopping block in the fight against childhood obesity. Bake sales? Really?

In New York, school officials are working to create a policy that would limit bake sales. In an effort to reduce childhood obesity, they are looking to ban baked good sales from schools, with the exception of one day per month or after 6 p.m. when very few people are around to buy or sell their wares. Instead, PTAs and other groups will be allowed to sell fresh fruits and vegetables along with some packaged items that are on the district’s list of healthy snacks.  Doritos are on the list. A chocolate chip cookie baked by Grandma, not so much.

I had a heated discussion about this issue with one of my young, zealous friends who is almost always a food buzz killer.  “But don’t you think that schools can raise just as much money if they sell carrots?” she asked. After a long pause, and much thought, I said “No, not ever.”

From a food policy standpoint, “Setting out guidelines for when and what is included in a bake sale may be a good way of modeling healthy food habits, which include variety and moderation,” IATP Food and Society Policy Fellow Alethia Carr says,  “A bake sale held monthly, is different from a weekly sale for fund raising.  A monthly offering of baked goods, that are wholesome, good food, including those with fruits and vegetables in the recipe, demonstrates a form of good eating for our children, while infrequent enough to demonstrate moderation.”  Carr says, “We have to remember that in schools, we’re really showing our children how to live.  Let’s make sure we’re doing it in a way that promotes good health.”

But are we going too far?  Cheryl Danley, an academic specialist at CS Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at Michigan State University believes that it is a good move for schools to begin to control what is on the school campus and to look at the various ways children access empty calories.  “There is something to be said for moderation and honoring and recognizing people’s food cultures.”  She thinks it is important to have discussions and forums about such moves.  “The New York City health department unilaterally ordered the transfat ban, and also the Mayor’s food Czar created  “green cart” program of fresh fruit vendors without consulting communities.”

But is the little bake sale where moms and kids bring in homemade goodies the main thing that’s making kids fat? Nancy Baggett, baker, writer and author of several books including The All American Cookie Book, says “the sugary colas and “fake fruit” drinks that folks guzzle by the gallon and 1,000-calorie burger and fries meals they routinely chomp down are the real problem because they are on menus every day.”  She adds that, “home-made baked sale goodies are a special treat eaten only once in a while. We always had school/church/community bake sales as I was growing up and almost nobody was obese, and even a slightly overweight child was an absolute rarity.” Baggett says, “The difference now is the fat-packed junk food and super-sized drinks, NOT the cupcakes from the PTA sale.”

Maybe traditional bake sales can be teachable real world moments for parents and kids, where the focus could lie more on education about moderation and less on dictating ingredients.  “It is important to teach children that they can enjoy an occasional treat as long as they engage in an appropriate amount of physical activity that allows them to burn calories and maintain a healthy weight,” says Maya Rockeymoore, Ph.D., president of Global Policy Solutions.  “School officials should consider acceptable alternatives to traditional bake sales such as “healthy bite” sales that offer more nutritious food items or “bake and shake” sales in which students purchase healthier baked goods while burning off excess calories with physical activity such as dancing, hoola hoop, or other active play options.”

“I think this knee-jerk reaction to the “obesity epidemic” is wrong, wrong, wrong” says Jill O’Connor, baker and author of several books including Sticky, Chewy, Messy, Gooey: Desserts for the Serious Sweet Tooth.“I am no longer allowed to bring home-baked goodies to the schools and no cupcakes on birthdays either.  But I can bring in processed snacks — as long as they have the nutritional breakdown listed on the package — are still permitted in limited amounts.”  She also comments that “as a country, Americans tend to swing from one extreme to another in an effort to solve such big (no pun intended) problems — there are no shades of grey, no middle ground.”

O’Connor is a scratch baker and a food purist in her own right. She makes a firm distinction between baking cupcakes from a boxed mix and icing them with canned frosting and a home-baked chocolate chip cookie made from scratch. “Kids should be exposed to real, honest-to-goodness baking, so they know what GOOD is, and will be more likely to pass up a Twinkie or packaged cookie if they have sampled something better.”  O’Connor also emphasizes the larger, satisfying benefits of actually producing homemade treats. “Real baking takes time, talent, patience and skill.  If you want something sweet badly enough and you go to the trouble to shop for the ingredients, and skillfully assemble them into a delicious dessert you deserve to have a taste.”

I feel a bit like Scarlett O’Hara, disheveled, flour on my face, holding a cupcake up to the heavens, declaring “By God as my witness, I will never do a bake sale again!”  But it won’t be because I am going to singlehandedly make kids fat with lemon blueberry muffins, or because I personally feel responsible for increasing fiber intake in little children, or because I want to tear down just one more cherished tradition.  It will be because I have baked my 1,532 cupcakes, and I am too lazy to do any more.

Photo: Aaron Landry

9 thoughts on “If You Give A Kid A Cupcake: A Comment on the Bakesale Brouhaha

  1. Increasingly I have seen at bake sales (disclosure: I have no kids and have never participated in a bake sale) at local events that are packed with store-bought, pre-packaged goods. Where’s the fun in that?

    Yes, your from-scratch cookie recipe might include two sticks of butter, but lord knows that’s better than the trans-fat-laden vegetable shortening and high-fructose corn syrup prevalent in packaged baked goods and mixes. Plus, the from-scratch stuff actually tastes GOOD! Have you tried a “homemade” baked good from a convenience store? They are absolute crap! I agree that teaching the next generation what a treat should taste like is imperative in teaching them healthy eating habits.

    I see it this way: crappy, sugary snacks don’t really taste very good. Not the way fresh-baked bread or still-warm homemade cookies do. So people tend to eat more of the crap to satisfy their cravings. Whereas the good stuff satisfies with just one or two cookies, instead of twelve. Well, depending on how hungry you are. :)

    Banning bake sales is the last thing that should be on school administrators’ minds. Let’s tackle school lunch and the overscheduling of kids with no free time to just PLAY first.

  2. The bake-sale brouhaha is really interesting to me. I don’t have kids either, but I was a kid, and an overweight one at that.

    Looking back on it — and I do often, as I try to make peace with myself now as a skinny person that still sees a pudgy kid in the mirror (story for another time) — I realize that the problem I had with managing my weight was understanding the cause/effect of what I put into my body. Since until I was a teenager much of what I put into my body was given to me by someone I was supposed to trust (my parents, for instance, or a school lunch lady), I had no comprehension that what I was eating might do me a disservice.

    The problem I think lies in the fact that the majority of people kids are told to trust with these decisions (those same parents, that same lunch lady) seem to not understand the cause/effects themselves.

    Does restricting bake sales from schools teach them that lesson? Well, no. But does it start the conversation? Maybe? In a really flawed way?

    How do you think we can best start the dialog about feeding our kids healthy with the people that are supplying the food, if this isn’t the answer (and I think a lot of us will agree it isn’t)?

  3. I agree with Sarah that it’s disheartening to see store-bought, pre-packaged goods at bake sales. If the parents are too busy to bake, please don’t contribute, or give the school a monetary donation instead.

    As for whether or not the bake sales contribute to childhood obesity, I believe the answer is no. The root of childhood obesity is based on what is practiced at home and allowed by the parents. It’s more important to learn portion control than to try to convince children that eating a cupcake is a no-no.

  4. Well, you are preaching to the choir. I cannot BELIEVE your friend thinks there is an even remote possibility that the schools can raise money selling carrots. And they’ll probably try and sell those gawd-awful “baby” carrots that are…what, what are they? The gnawed off stumps of carrots that were probably three pounds apiece to start with.

    To Nervous cook, I’d say this is the wrong conversation to start (I was an always chubby kid who slimmed down as an adult with WORK and still fight the fat now–AND I have a daughter who is chubby and I SWORE I’d never have chubby kids…as you say, story for another time)..I think one of the BIG things to work on is that treats are just that: TREATS. Kids, Moms, Dads, teahcers: We don’t get to eat cupcakes everyday because that isn’t good for our bodies. We DO get to eat an occasional treat because that is okay..

    I think this whole debate takes us bag to the good food/bad food debate and I like to say food is not bad or good–it just IS.

    Andrea, great post.

  5. Ditto on all of the above. In addition to the no-sugar push, a big concern about food brought into the classroom in our district is allergens. But here’s what I find interesting…our school district does many things right…it’s a national model for Farm-2-School, etc. But if we wanted a classroom pizza party, we ordered through the district and they get Dominos special edition. Huh?

    Another thing: my daughter packs her lunch each day because there is simply not enough time to get the great salad bar and eat it. Kids get far more exposure to unhealthy foods through sharing contents of lunch boxes than they do at school bake sales.

    Education is key. Educating that moderation is the ticket is key. I’m tired of extreme measures either way. Take the sensible approach.

  6. Excellent assessment of a silly, sad state of things. Here in this country which I love so deeply and much, we have a habit of looking everywhere but inside ourselves to fix what we find wrong. We do not take kindly to the simple truths: We need to eat good-for-us food including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, dark colors are good, minimally processed is good, made at home with love is good, protein and fiber and vitamins and all that good jazz, and we need to eat good food every day. We need to drink water and move our bodies often and a lot, and we need to cook and eat together and read books more than we stare at screens. We need to cut way way way back on “snack foods” and sodas and anything sold in single serving packets at the checkout counter at the grocery store. Having a 100-calorie pack of tiny cookies does not magically peel away flab or protect our teeth from cavities. We’ve always had bake-sales and homemade baked goodies; we haven’t always had an obesity crisis. What is different about today’s food scene, compared to baby boomer childhood days? It’s everything BUT the bake sales, and while I adore carrots and apples and keeping healthful food choices handy at home for our day to day eating, the Birthday Fruit Salad will not hold up the candles, and any rule claiming to promote health and banish obesity cannot possibly allow single-serving packs of Doritos as an item allowable for sale to our children, not with a straight and honest face. It’s not the foods; it’s us, and how we eat them, and when and where and why. Balance and moderation — dirty words in the American view of food.

  7. Thanks for the well-balanced article, Andrea. I think we need more pieces that give space for parents and schools to more completely think through the food policy options before us as we try to address childhood obesity. As others have mentioned, most of these issues are gray rather than black or white as issues and we need more people thinking through them in through a systems approach. It’s not just nutrients and calories, as Alethia mentions, it’s teaching food culture. I really appreciated hearing from so many experts in the field in this blog posting.

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