After the Great Cupcake War of 2014 was won by parents who urged the Board of Education to continue to allow children to enjoy cupcakes and other food during celebrations and themed days, the board is once again beginning to have conversations about what food should and shouldn’t be permitted in school. Race Brook School parent Karen Sim addressed the board during the public comment portion of the meeting. She said, “I know that there is a proposal that would basically take away the celebrations within the classrooms and I know that’s based mostly on allergies. I know that it’s a very challenging thing for parents of children with allergies.”
At the May meeting of the Board of Education, a mom with two children at Race Brook School pleaded with the board to consider adopting a food-free celebration policy at Orange Schools. Roo Ciambriello has daughters in first and third grade at Race Brook School and one entering kindergarten in the fall. Two of her daughters have severe food allergies she explained to the board of education at its March meeting. “I realize this has been a long and arduous process and I am thankful for the board’s consideration and long hours being spent on the food policy,” she said. “I think the general public has a hard time understanding food allergies. We can’t wrap our heads around it. We don’t know how kids get them.
“While I was disheartened that the first read of the revised policy did not include a move to a food-free celebration policy, I was encouraged to hear that follow-up correspondence and policy meetings with the committee did include conversation around implementing those changes,” she said.
“A food- free celebration not only benefits the food allergic, there are benefits to all students regardless of disability or special need. A move to a food-free policy is in line with national recommendations with the CDC as well as the American Heart Association,” she said.
“On the flip side, these celebrations are a very strong social aspect at the schools as well as an opportunity for learning,” Sim said. She described Apple Day in first grade, where the students learn to measure using apples, and then make apple-based foods. “It’s an opportunity for them to be learning in another environment. Yes, there’s food, but it’s in a preserved moderate, not excessive, presentation,” she said. During the fourth grade Pow Wow Day, students learn about Native American Indians through music, crafts, games and food. “There is a food-based aspect where we learn how Native American Indians prepare their food and the children enjoy it in small quantities. If there are allergens, an alternative is provided so that the child can still participate in the event.”
“Food is just a fact of life. In grades one through six, it’s important to still recognize these milestones. I ask that you reconsider the extreme part of the policy – it doesn’t necessarily have to be ‘none,’ but there could be steps taken to taper back on the amount of celebrations involving cupcakes, but those theme days are really critical. If you took the food aspect away from the theme days, they wouldn’t be in the same spirit.”
In 2014, a new state mandate that prohibited teachers from using food as a reward for positive behavior, such as completing homework or classwork was enacted, bringing the Orange Board of Education to take a look at the overarching policy. After months of conversation and review of a policy proposed by the Healthy Lifestyles Committee, the board made minimal restrictions on classroom celebrations.
Ben Cewe, a fifth grader at Race Brook School, said one of his favorite memories at school was First Grade Family Fun Day when the class decorated cookies and this year at Colonial Day when the class made ice cream and corn bread. “I have also enjoyed our class parties. I will remember these things forever. Getting rid of the food portion of these events will have a large impact on students. I think that food brings people together and helps create new friendships. I hope that we can continue to keep these events,” Ben said.
Amy Van Zandt, Ben’s mom, said she came to the board not just as a parent, but as an educator with 20 years of experience as a school psychologist in Southbury’s Region 15, a district much like Orange. About 10 years ago, her district changed its policy regarding food, eliminating it from any classroom event or celebration. “It was done for a number of reasons including safety and health and wellness. Most staff was not in agreement, but board policy is board policy. Fast forward to today, it is a topic that is continuously talked about among staff as there has been a noticeable shift in school culture. Our schools don’t feel joyful as they once were. Both students and staff feel it,” she said. “While I don’t feel that all of this goes back to eliminating food, I do feel there is a connection between special school events and students’ satisfaction with school. School is a cumulative experience, a combination of what you’ve learned and what you remember,” she said.
Accommodating students with special dietary needs and one regarding guidelines for students with food allergies “They are very specific about the treatment of children with those conditions and not specifically about food that is provided in classrooms, which is another conversation that we’ll be having,” said board vice chair, Mara Saccente.
By Melissa Nicefaro – Orange Town News Correspondent