Sugar Shock in our Schools

With one in three children now overweight, it’s time to wean our schools from their addiction to candy fund-raisers.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #190

Sugar Shock in our Schools

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Alice writes:

“I have two young children and I’m trying to raise them to be healthy eaters. I work hard to limit their intake of sugary snacks and drinks but about once a week they have cupcakes at school to celebrate someone’s birthday. It’s not that I don’t ever allow them to have treats but this is more than I’m comfortable with. But how can I fight it?”

I’ve heard similar concerns from other parents. One wrote about constant bake sales at the school, where kids are encouraged to buy cookies and brownies to support their drama program or raise money for a class trip. Another complained about fund-raisers where kids compete to see who can sell the most candy bars. The prize for the winner? An ice cream sundae party!

I think these parents have a very legitimate point. There is an awful lot of hand-wringing these days over childhood obesity rates and the amount of sugar our kids are consuming. So why are sugar-laden foods and drinks still the focus of every social and recreational activity at their schools? Why are we encouraging our kids to sell foods that we tell them aren’t good for them? (After all, whom do you think they’re selling to?)  How surprised can we really be that our kids our getting 18% of their daily calories from sugar?

The High Price of Easy Money

I’m aware that candy fund-raisers and bake sales are popular because they’re effective. Kids like candy.  Given half a chance, kids will spend their pocket money—not to mention their lunch money--on sweets. Most will be happy to consume as much as they can get their hands on—and they get their hands on plenty. According to researchers, the typical classroom celebration serves up enough sweet stuff to supply 20 to 35% of a kid’s daily calorie needs! I’m also painfully aware that schools need funds to support programming and even basic materials that have been cut from their budgets.

But surely there must be other ways to raise money, celebrate special occasions, incentivize and reward our kids. Ways that don’t undermine their health and well-being. Ways that don’t actively cultivate and reinforce bad eating habits.  Ways that don’t contradict what we’re trying to teach them about healthy choices.

The only way things are going to change is if parents take a stand.   Don’t think for a moment that concerned parents can’t effect change. Just a couple of months ago, it took one outraged mom in Texas only a few days to collect so many signatures on her online petition that the USDA was forced to change its policy on “Pink Slime” in school lunch programs. Unfortunately, parental pressure can cut both ways. There have been several instances where efforts on the part of local health authorities and legislators to eliminate bake sales and birthday celebrations in schools have been overturned…by the parents.

So, Moms and Dads: Where’s the outrage?  Although Pink Slime may have been distasteful, I would argue that getting a third of their calories from cupcakes and chocolate bars is doing our kids a lot more harm. With one third of our kids now overweight or obese, it’s time to talk to school administrators, parent associations, school nurses, and to club and activity organizers that promote candy sales. I suggest a 2-step approach.

Step 1: Raise Consciousness


In many schools, the bake sales, candy-selling contests, and classroom cake-fests are well-established traditions. Many teachers, parents, and administrators simply haven’t connected the dots between these activities and our increasingly rotund student body. But all of these stake-holders ultimately have the kids’ best interests at heart. So step one is simply to point out that these activities are inconsistent with—and actually detrimental to—our efforts to fight obesity and related health problems in young people. Use this column as ammunition, if you like. Or print out this terrific Food-in-the-Classroom Manifesto posted written by Bettina Siegel on her blog, The Lunch Tray.

Step 2: Propose Alternatives

No-one wants to be the Mom or Dad that puts an end to classroom celebrations—or the kid who brings carrot sticks and hummus instead of cupcakes. And we certainly don’t want to shut down our schools’ ability to fund-raise. So, I think we need to be armed with some alternatives.

When I was a kid, we raised money for our school by selling boxes of navel oranges and grapefruit—which, in the dead of winter in Buffalo, sounded like liquid sunshine--and sold like crazy! My girlfriend’s school had a hugely successful holiday wrapping paper fund-raiser every winter. Come January, every family needs a new wall calendar for the kitchen—how about one with pictures of the school’s sports teams and events? How about a plant sale for Earth Day? As for birthdays, perhaps the 20 minutes that would be spent eating cupcakes in honor of someone’s birthday could be spent playing a game or watching a short movie instead? 

Surely some of you have other, better ideas. So, let the brainstorming begin. Post your comments, your ideas, and your success stories below. 

This month, the Institutes of Medicine released their Weight of the Nation report, coinciding with the HBO series of the same name. Both make it clear that the biggest obstacle to change is an environment that promotes junk food, overeating, and sedentary lifestyles. Both the report and the television series also document the dire the costs of failing to act. So, let’s stop kvetching about how much sugar our kids are eating and do something to change the environment.

See also: How to Raise Healthy Eaters

Kids with Dessert image from Shutterstock

About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.