When I was a little Halloween trick-or-treater, I knew which neighbors' houses to avoid—the ones where the spoils consisted of raisins, tape-wrapped penny rolls, pretzel sticks, and the world's worst treat, homemade granola. The reason my sister and I avoided these houses is obvious: Kids just aren't interested in health food on Halloween.
Yet, in today's hyper-sensitive weight culture, parents might feel pressure to skip the sugar on Halloween in favor of healthier options. Some ambitious moms are surely now trolling through Pinterest pictures for ideas for kid-fooling organic fruit and agave nectar lollipops. Most reasonable parents, however, understand that Halloween is just one day of tooth decaying revelry, and on November 1, sticky children everywhere go back to their regularly scheduled diets.
Schools are another story: Increasingly they are caving to the no-sugar pressure by banning candy and baked goods entirely. In fact, one Massachusetts school district is planning to ban candy from the school's Halloween festivities. In a letter sent home to parents in early October, the Andover, Mass. school superintendent explained the school would adhere to a new set of state nutrition standards that limits snacks from school events. Naturally, candy does not fit these new standards, nor do home baked goods. According to a report in the town's local paper, the new standards will only allow "group snacks" that come "prepackaged from a commercial kitchen; have less than 35 percent fat; contain fewer than 200 calories and 200 mg. of sodium per serving; have no transfats, artificial sweeteners or flavors, and contain fewer than 14 grams of sugar."
Got all that, Mom?
So, let's put this new restriction into real world terms. Little Timmy turns seven next week and wants to celebrate by sharing cupcakes with his friends in class. Thanks to these new regulations, Mom's birthday duties just got a lot more complicated. Instead of baking wholesome homemade cupcakes in her own kitchen, she needs to journey to find a batch of cupcakes in compliance with the school's complicated rules.
I'm sure Timmy's mom has the time to stop by several stores and bakeries to check the nutrition information on industrially-produced baked goods. I'm sure she won't mind calling to ask for full nutrition information, while crossing her fingers that something, anything, fits. After hours on hold, being hung up on, and discussing complicated nutrition facts with the 16-year old bakery assistant (who really just wanted a simple after-school job), she'll finally tell poor Timmy that he'll have to skip his in-class celebration this year.
Happy birthday, kid!
Aside from Timmy's disappointment from his birthday let down, the real damage is the lesson this teaches him. One, that his mom can't be trusted to provide him and his school friends with one of her delicious homemade cupcakes. Two, industrial food is better than the food mom makes. And three, that treats are bad all the time, even on special days like Halloween and birthdays.
Schools in Greeley, Colo. have also called for a ban on all sweets, baked foods, and candy. According to a local Fox News report on the school's decision, even birthday cakes are banned, unless of course Mom uses a district-approved recipe.
Oh, that sounds good, Comrade Lunch Lady.
Andover has been praised for its strict school food rules. Sen. John Kerry called Andover a model for the nation (let's hope not!). Some will say schools are doing their job in banning nutritionally deficient food. Of course, kids do need to understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy food. But they also need to be taught balance, good decisions, self-control, and the value of cooking instead of relying on ready-made and pre-packaged meals.
Most of all, we need to remember to let kids be kids. They need to be taught the proper place for candy, for cake, and for celebration. Halloween and birthday parties don't cause childhood obesity. Demonizing treats, rather than helping kids understand their proper place, is more likely to cause bad habits than encourage good ones.
Julie Gunlock is director of the Independent Women's Forum's Women for Food Freedom project.