Posted Nov 11, 2010

The cake, cookies and candy at the school parties you might remember will become a no-no if the state approves new nutrition guidelines.

Parent organizers would have to pick just one sweet treat per party and will be encouraged to order anything else from a menu of healthy snacks from their district’s food services department.

“I’m frustrated to hear that (the state) felt like they’d have to do that,” said Michelle Sierk of Hempfield, president of the parent-teacher organization at West Point Elementary near Greensburg. The group already encourages parents to find creative ways to limit sugary snacks.

“We tell the party moms to send in one sweet snack, something salty, something healthy and one drink,” Sierk said. “We try to regulate ourselves in the sense that it’s our kids.”

The Pennsylvania State Board of Education expects to vote this spring on new nutrition guidelines for food served at school, said Adam Schott, the board’s executive director. Districts would have to comply by fall 2012, he said. The proposed rules came about through an ongoing review process.

The rules would limit the number of parties to one classroom birthday celebration a month, and no more than three holiday parties a year. They must be held after lunch.

The state could withhold or rescind state and federal reimbursements for districts that don’t comply. The state could revoke approval for vending machines from offending districts.

Tim Allwein, an assistant executive director at the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said he doesn’t think districts would have problems conforming to new rules.

“My sense from talking to members is that most districts have reduced the amount of in-class type parties over the years anyway,” he said.

In 2006, the state Department of Education first issued nutritional guidelines for classroom parties. The guidelines encouraged districts to limitsugary snacks at in-school parties to two or three and include fruits, vegetables and milk. They encouraged districts to participate by offering extra reimbursements through the school lunch program.

The same year, the state required districts to write a policy guiding physical activity and nutritional standards, and form a wellness committee to implement the policy.

“Teachers and principals routinely encourage parents to purchase food and beverages that are safe for all students, including those with peanut allergies,” said Bill Englert, a West Allegheny assistant superintendent who chairs the district’s wellness committee. “We encourage them to provide health alternatives to traditional sweets, but that’s a gray area, because everybody knows you like to have sweets at a party.”

In the Belle Vernon School District, changes have met resistance. The wellness committee’s guidelines, which go beyond the state’s, stipulate food served at birthday and holiday parties must be ordered from the district’s food service. No outside food is permitted.

In response to parents’ concerns, board President Dale Patterson said he will meet with PTA presidents and district officials to reach a compromise.

“What this group of concerned parents would like is to add a little something that’s more of a treat,” he said. “I think maybe we need to look at it a little more.”

A similar rule went into effect this year at elementary schools in the Upper St. Clair School District. It stems from concerns about food allergies, said Tammy Engel, an active member of the Streams Elementary PTA.

“I don’t know too many parents who were upset, only because now you don’t have to bring food in, because sometimes it’s hard to find time to do,” she said. “I haven’t heard any complaints other than on a nostalgia basis.”


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