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Saturday, February 11, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM


Breaking the sugar cycle

Seattle Times staff reporter

For Valentine's Day, children attending Phinney Ridge Kids! will eat heart-shaped biscuits with jam and drink low-fat milk tinged pink with food coloring. At Wallingford Child Care Center, the special Valentine snack will be blueberry muffins with whipped tofu frosting.

"The kids eat it up," said Cheryll Artz, Wallingford's program coordinator. "It's still a treat, but it's healthier."

With rising concern over childhood obesity, more educators and parents are tackling the classroom Cs: cupcakes, cookies and candy. Served for birthdays and class parties, some worry kids now expect the high-fat and sugar sweets as part of every celebration.

Proponents suggest subbing fruit, low-fat snacks or veggies and dip but some parents balk at serving carrots for special days. Other schools skip food entirely, focusing on games and activities for class parties or asking for a donated book in the birthday child's name.

Principals and teachers report an increase in healthier foods for holidays and birthday celebrations, noted Ann Lanning, co-chair of the Bellevue PTSA Council's Health & Wellness Committee. "We understand that healthy eating is important for growth, good health and academic performance," she wrote in an e-mail.

But even as more school districts ban junk food and pop sales and revamp cafeteria offerings, class treats are semi-sacred. The Seattle School Board specifically exempted class parties from its health guidelines, instead "strongly encouraging" healthful options. Bellevue School District's new policy also urges — but not requires — celebrations to rely on "healthy snacks or nonfood items."

"The whole birthday cake thing is so ingrained in our culture," Artz said.

Healthful snacks/treats

Fresh fruit (fruit kabobs, fruit salad, fruit with dip)

Whole-grain crackers with cheese cubes

Graham crackers, fig bars, animal crackers, oatmeal- raisin cookies

Pretzels, rice cakes

Low-fat granola bars

Baked chips and salsa

Trail mix with whole-grain cereal and dried fruit

Pumpkin, zucchini or banana muffins (with applesauce subbing for oil)

Frozen 100 percent fruit juice

Low-fat snack cake with whipped topping

Unlike cafeteria or vending machine tweaks, class treats reflect directly back on parents. Schools that dictate healthful food risk sounding judgmental of a family's diet, but those that don't may appear to condone junk food that vies with nutrition lessons.

"Parents should be responsible for teaching their kids healthy habits and teachers and principals should not be forced to become food cops," said Kristin Gulley, a parent at Ben Rush Elementary in Redmond. If parents started a campaign to halt class treats, their child "would be ostracized for the rest of her public school career," she said.

"To eliminate cupcakes would be really sad," said Jody Hall, owner of Cupcake Royale, a bakery with two locations in Ballard and Madrona. "It's an indulgence, for sure, but it's just one portion."

Advocates note that kids can have their cake and eat it — just not at school. "Our kids get plenty of sugar at the weekend birthday parties as it is," said Liz Michaelson, PTA vice president at Bellingham's Lowell School, which opts for a birthday-book donation program.

Many parents don't recognize the cumulative effect of birthday treats 25 times in nine months, on top of seasonal celebrations such as Valentine's Day, said Kirsten Frandsen, who works with the Seattle, Highline and Tukwila school districts as nutrition-education coordinator for King County Steps to Health. Those empty calories make it less likely kids will eat healthful food later.

"There's so much focus now on obesity, but a lot of parents just don't see the harm in one cupcake," Frandsen said. "They don't see the magnitude of how much kids are really getting."

Class sweets weren't such a big deal in earlier decades when kids walked to school, spent less time sitting in front of screens and ate mostly home-cooked meals. "Over time, our lives have changed so much and we have to respond with changes in our culture as well," Frandsen said.

An estimated 16 percent of children nationwide are overweight, a 45-percent jump since the early 1990s, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The percentage of overweight children ages 6 to 11 has quadrupled since the 1960s. Additionally, schools deal with food allergies and food-safety concerns.

Information on the Web

Center for Science in the Public Interest ( Links to

healthful school-party resources):

Laurelhurst Nutrition Advisory Committee ( Tips on starting a nutrition committee and classroom celebration ideas):

Teachers and parents say class- or schoolwide policies are important so kids don't feel deprived when one parent takes a stand with apples while another ups the "cool-kid" ante with more junk food.

At one child-care center, a parent brought in pizza, juice drinks and cupcakes for a child's birthday, said Adrienne Dorf, nutrition consultant for Public Health — Seattle & King County's Child Care Health Program.

"Even with encouragement for healthy alternatives, some parents seem to like traditional treats," noted Laura McCarthy, room mom for her son Max's first-grade class at Wickersham School of Discovery in Buckley, Pierce County. For the class' Valentine party, she suggested parents send cookies, but also string cheese, yogurt tubes, fruit, veggies, mini sandwiches or meat balls.

"We all have great memories of those special treats, and a party is always memorable at school," McCarthy said. "I think it is a balancing issue. We don't want children to think sweets are bad."

Parents pushing for more nutritious offerings say kids will gobble up fruit and low-fat muffins. And it's not just do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do: The PTA offered a fruit platter at its back-to-school night and sold out its roasted corn on the cob at the fall carnival, said Elise Hart, a mom of three who started a nutrition-advisory committee at Laurelhurst Elementary School last spring.

"In some people's minds, it seems harder," she said, "but often they just don't know what all the options are."

Stephanie Dunnewind:

or 206-464-2091.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company





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