Reclaiming Valentine's Day

by Dana Woldow, 2013-01-30

The heart may be the most enduring symbol of Valentine's Day, but here's another image: second graders using giant "scoop" style corn chips to eat the neon pink frosting from atop their cupcakes. Every year, epicurean excess like this happens in classrooms nationwide during the ritual known as the "class party."

Despite the recent government-mandated move to healthier school meals, some of the worst food ever produced still turns up regularly in classrooms in the form of party treats. While there is nothing wrong with kids having the occasional cupcake or glass of punch, many parents and teachers feel that school parties have gotten out of hand.


Considering that the average class size in California public schools is 24 students, that means 24 potential classroom birthday parties; add in celebrations for Halloween, Thanksgiving, winter holidays, Valentine's Day, start of spring break, end of standardized testing, last day of school, and on and on, and you end up with a school party darn near every week. No wonder parents have started to push back against what often feels like a non-stop sugar bash in their child's school.

In an article which touched on this issue last year, I quoted an SF parent describing her child's classroom experience: "At least once a week there are treats handed out. This week was the topper: On Tuesday, Valentine's Day, my daughter brought home about 30 pieces of candy after eating several cookies + cupcakes + a Capri Sun. Wednesday was a birthday for another child whose parents provided large cupcakes + Capri Suns + goodie bags with candy. Then on Thursday, her teacher had an ice cream sundae party for the students who had memorized their times tables. That was in one week! I know our Principal tries her best in her beginning-of-the year letter to the school community to encourage healthy treats. But the parents go ahead and bring them anyway. It's tough on teachers whose students' parents show up with the trays of cupcakes in the morning. What are they supposed to do, say "Sorry, no treats" and watch the birthday kid's eyes well up with tears?"

At the time, I suggested that maybe Valentine's Day could be celebrated by families sending six-packs of annuals (pansy, Iceland poppy, marigold) to class instead of cupcakes and candy, and students could plant them around school as a way to show their love of Mother Earth.

That idea would work in a mild climate like San Francisco, but for those living in colder climes, there are lots of other activities and snacks for Valentine's Day that are more fun for kids than the usual sugar coma, and some even sneak in some education. It's time to reclaim Valentine's Day as a time to celebrate love, friendship, and a healthy heart.

The fact that February happens to be American Heart Month means that there are plenty of ways to tie heart health to a classroom Valentine's celebration, taking the focus off of the traditional sugary treats. The LA Department of Public Heath suggests classrooms "take this time to explore the importance of a strong heart for a healthy body. How does the heart work? Where is it found? What keeps it healthy and strong?"

Scholastic, the book fair company, offers free lesson plans and templates for teaching younger students about how the heart works, as well as for fun activities, like Valentine Guess Who.

Nourish Interactive a website devoted to empowering kids to make healthy choices, also offers free downloads of Valentine activities like coloring sheets, Valentine's cards, bookmarks, word puzzles, and more, all featuring heart healthy choices.

Poudre School District in Colorado has a terrific guide to healthy school celebrations which includes ideas for heart healthy Valentine party games like Heart Stomp, Catch My Heart, Steal My Heart, and Broken Heart Tag.

The Healthy Schools Campaign, a Chicago-based non profit focused on healthy school environments, recommends party activities like having students write positive comments to each other, encouraging students to dance, or doing a community service project to create cards for hospital patients.

It may not be possible to eliminate school party snacks completely, but that doesn't mean they have to be Frito cupcakes, and some treats can be healthy for the environment, too. From a Mill Valley (CA) elementary school, a heart healthy snack guide with fun snacks appropriate to the day, and which do not generate a ton of trash.

Red fruits and vegetables just naturally lend themselves to a Valentine's Day celebration, and a heart-shaped cookie cutter makes it easy to create cute fruit snacks. Sandwiches, slices of cheese, and most fruits and veggies can be turned into holiday hearts with a cookie cutter.



But it isn't necessary to buy special heart shaped cookie cutters or baking pans to make heart shaped treats. For example, strawberries sliced lengthwise can come out heart-shaped. The oblong-shaped cherry tomatoes called "grape tomatoes" can be turned into a cute heart with just a knife and a toothpick. Or make hearts from red pepper strips, or from whole carrots. With a little help, even hard boiled eggs can be made in heart shape. To bake fruit muffins in a heart shape, insert a marble between the paper liner and the edge of the pan.

Scaling back on the sugar fest happening in so many classrooms on Valentine's Day means fighting a longstanding tradition, even though the origin of the holiday has nothing whatever to do with sugar or sweets, being rooted more in legends of romance and fertility. During much of the 19th century, Americans marked the holiday with just an exchange of handmade cards. However, in1861, Cadbury's began selling heart-shaped boxes of chocolate in England to celebrate Valentine's Day; by1894, the New York Times was already reporting that gifts of candy were starting to replace the traditional cards in America.

It can be hard to undo a candy-giving tradition going back well over 100 years, although today's classroom sugar binges have evolved way beyond the concept of 19th century suitors courting their beloved with a heart shaped box of sweets. It's not that concerned parents are waging a war on cupcakes, as some have claimed. In fact, often the parent would like to be able to give their child a sweet treat to celebrate a holiday.

Houston food writer and mom Bettina Elias Siegel, whose The Lunch Tray blog often features lively discussions of classroom treats, says, "We really enjoy sweets and dessert in our house, but when a child comes home from school unexpectedly loaded up with sugar, any responsible parent is going to have to rethink a planned dessert at home or promised trip to the ice cream store. And that feels very invasive -- how does the school have the right to feed my child without asking me, which in turn upsets plans we had as a family to share a special treat?"

Other parents are justifiably concerned not just about the empty calories in so many school party foods, but also about allergens. With 8% (or 1 in 13) children allergic to at least one food, typically 2 children in every classroom have to avoid eating classroom snacks whose ingredients may not be clearly or properly labeled.

A parent of an allergic child at a school on the SF Peninsula told me, "Bringing in a food treat can be a safety hazard for allergic children. Even if the treat is thought to be safe, sometimes it isn't. When students bring a food treat and the allergic student must eat a different "safe" treat. it teaches the allergic student that he/she is not worth the effort to bring a non-edible treat, which would be safe for everyone, that a food is more important than his/her feelings. It teaches the other students that it is ok to exclude another student and in fact, expected. What precedent does that create for when they are older?"

Still, it is possible to change the paradigm of school parties as junk food festivals. Just look at what is happening this year at the SF school where the parent complained that last year's Valentine's Day sugar blowout was followed by a classroom birthday party the next day and an ice cream party the day after that.

"We started a program based on the First Lady's popular Let's Move campaign," that parent told me recently. "The principal made many announcements stating this was a done deal, and that many schools all over the country were eliminating sugary treats at school. Hooking our train to this national movement to improve the health of children helped soften the blow to the parents and staff who may have been upset by the change. On birthdays, my son's teacher blows up a big balloon which all the students sign and give to the birthday child. The child gets to pick an indoor game for the whole class to play or opt for an extra few minutes playing on the playground as the "treat." Eliminating treats also helps reduce the amount of packaging we throw away, which is important to our school community."

For Valentine's Day, the school is considering a jump rope-athon or a fun run, and teachers will be keeping sugar out of the classroom. That's how one school has reclaimed Valentine's Day as a healthy celebration of the heart.

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.