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Halloween parties become no-sweet zones

First, they came for the costumes. Then, they came for the candy. The scariest thing at an elementary school Halloween party may just be a smuggled mini-Snickers. But don't call it a Halloween party. In many cases, schools throw a kinder, more he...

First, they came for the costumes. Then, they came for the candy.

The scariest thing at an elementary school Halloween party may just be a smuggled mini-Snickers.

But don't call it a Halloween party. In many cases, schools throw a kinder, more healthful fall celebration for students, void of costumes and sanitized of scary. Now, more of these classroom parties are turning sugar-free and heart healthy.

With concerns over childhood obesity, and the implications of sugar worsening other ailments, the sweet stuff has become verboten in many parenting circles.

The latest research published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association indicates that 40 percent of daily calories consumed by children are "empty calories," lacking nutritional value.


The statistics have given the anti-sugar crowd clout.

Stacie Walck, director of Hope Montessori Academy in Ballwin, Mo., said the school started recommending more healthful snacks for parent volunteers to bring to parties. The suggestions include cheese cubes, veggies and dip, fruit, hummus and crackers. Some classrooms allow "Jell-O Jigglers," which she said, are less nefarious than cupcakes. The sugary treats get sent home in a goody bag, where parents can decide what to do with Tootsie Rolls and Milky Ways.

But it's not just Halloween that has gotten stripped down; all school celebrations, including birthdays, are fair game.

Walck says the school prefers more healthful snacks for birthdays. Some parents have even brought in whole grain cupcakes.

Jen Klearman of Chesterfield, Mo., a mother of two young children, said she was concerned about how many places handed out sugary treats to children -- from soccer to gymnastics to birthday parties and school parties. And, with more than 20 children in a class bringing birthday treats, that can mean a sugar overload, she said.

"Kids these days get way too much sugar from way too many places," she said. Klearman owns a Massage Envy store but is trained as a dietitian. She e-mailed her first-grader's principal to inquire about school celebrations that don't involve food. She would like to see school parties move toward a focus on activities and trinkets as treats.

"They can still bring in pencils, erasers or stickers. They can still sing 'Happy Birthday,'" she said. As far as Halloween parties are concerned, she says, "It can still be so fun and festive. We could come in and make smoothies."

Many districts adopted wellness guidelines five years ago that recommend healthful alternatives for school celebrations. Jennifer Gasper, a spokeswoman for the Francis Howell School District, said the district's wellness policy regulated any food served in school. But, she said, she is not aware of a case in which a parent was turned away for serving a less-healthful treat. Gina Tarte, a spokeswoman for the Rockwood district, said there was no districtwide mandate. At Ellisville Elementary, however, they do not incorporate treats with birthday celebrations, she said. Treats are shared when they have a school celebration such as Halloween, but for these functions, they are provided by the PTO because they are aware of the allergy concerns in each classroom.


Blades Elementary in the Mehville School District revamped their room party guidelines last year, including eliminating Halloween costumes and goody bags, which caused an outcry among some parents.

Peggy Hassler, president of the parents booster club, said the school staff suggested revising the policy to eliminate inequity between various classroom activities and treats.

"One room gets a Walmart party, and then one room gets a Saks Fifth Avenue party," she said. They also wanted to address the issue of children having to change into costumes at school in front of other students and find a way to include children whose families do not participate in Halloween.

The school created a pajama day in lieu of costumes for their fall parties last week.

The district's wellness policy, in force for several years, states in bold print: "Candy (all varieties) is not permitted." The suggested alternatives include fat-free or light popcorn, pumpkin seeds or pudding cups.

The birthday celebrations are supposed to follow the same guidelines, but "there's not a food police standing there," Hassler said.

While many nutritionists would cheer a shift toward activities rather than food-focused parties, some question the wisdom of going to extremes.

Tara Todd, a pediatric dietitian at St. Louis Children's Hospital, says she understands the premise for more healthful parties, but she worries that a total ban on sweets may backfire.


"I hate to hear schools say, 'No more sweet things,'" she said. She works with obese children and says research shows that completely restricting certain foods does not work to help children lose weight. "For a party that happens three times a year, an occasional cupcake is OK," Todd said.

She has two elementary-school age daughters and plans to bring the classroom treat for their school fall party. She's bringing fruit kebabs.

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