Sugarplums dance in their heads, not in classrooms: Wellnes policy leads to fewer sweets in schools

Posted: Friday, December 05, 2008

The holidays in school conjures up memories of sing along concerts, hallways decorated for the season, home baked cookies in the classroom and maybe a pizza party to mark the end of the second quarter.

While the decorations might remain and the concerts will go on, some of the holiday goodies associated with the season are failing to show. Efforts, both nationally and locally, to improve the eating and exercise habits of youth, are changing the ways sweets are purveyed in the schools, even through this festive time of the year.

Dean Hamburg, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's student nutrition services administrator, said he's seen less or the typical holiday foods and parties in schools.

"From my perspective, we do see reduced frequency of great amounts of cookies, birthday parties and pizza as rewards for school performance," Hamburg said. "We do see less sweets in classrooms than might have taken place before the wellness policy was established."

The wellness policy Hamburg refers to is a federal mandate implemented by the district in the fall of 2006, requiring lunch and breakfast programs to follow specific U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional guidelines to receive funding.

The mandate primarily impacts the foods served in school cafeterias, however, in preparing to apply the new federal standards, the district created a wellness committee to look at ways it could improve the general eating and exercise habits of students and faculty.

A component of that was removing the availability of sweet sugary foods from the classrooms and hallways. This included the removal or shutdown of vending machines purveying sugary carbonated beverages. In some schools, snack bars were closed down as well. A different aspect of this was removing what Hamburg called "reward foods" from classrooms.

"We made what we believed were reasonable requests to discourage the grand, very frequent provision of reward foods in classrooms and discouraged use of foods for rewards for academic performance in the classroom," Hamburg said.

Schools had a fair amount of independence in how they implemented the wellness policy.

"Overall we encourage a limit of the consumption of high fat, high sugar foods. Specific restrictions are developed independently by each school," Hamburg said.

The holidays haven't necessarily grayed because of the changes though. At the K-8 Chapman School in Anchor Point, emphasizing the importance of a healthy lifestyle has become a priority. Principal Sharon Trout said the school received federal money enabling them to serve fresh produce each afternoon as a post-lunch pick me up. She also reported that students get more than the required amount of physical education.

Even so, Trout said students would likely still enjoy holiday treats in the coming weeks.

"I think the effort in our building and administration is focusing on academics until right up to end of school," Trout said. "That does not precede holiday traditions that teachers do. Those are special occasions, so we will have, I'm sure, those traditional snacks."

Trout did say that during Halloween, the only candy she saw was coming from outside the school. Candy is no longer given out as a reward food. Other celebration foods have been changed or reduced as well.

"We just had a canned food drive where the reward was a popcorn party at the end of day. The student of the quarter still has a pizza party, but we're not doing dessert with that anymore," Trout said.

The popcorn, over less healthy snacks, and the removal of dessert at the pizza party all indicate a shift in mentality at the whole school, including amongst staff.

"There's a real change in mindset in staff to eat healthy," Trout said.

Just as students may no longer find as many sweets in the classroom, staff don't see doughnuts, pastries and other unhealthy snacks in the break rooms.

The emphasis on healthy choices doesn't mean students can't be rewarded for academic success. Hamburg recommended that parents and teachers look for material rewards instead of food rewards.

"My observation is that teachers and parents are switching to more academic related prizes," Hamburg said.

He recommended using items like pens, pencils or erasers instead.

Dante Petri can be reached at

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