The Argument for (or Against!) Banning Cupcakes in Schools

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Maria Siriano)

I’ll never forget the day in second grade when my mom showed up with two giant sheet pans of homemade cinnamon rolls. It was my birthday, and this was her surprise to me — a special treat to share with the whole class. I was genuinely surprised. And also a smidge disappointed that she hadn’t shown up with trays of store-bought cupcakes sporting thick swirls of frosting and plastic toppers that said, “YOU’RE RAD!” like the cool kids had brought in on their birthdays. (In addition to my reading and spelling skills in second grade, I was also proficient at ingratitude.)

Needless to say, everybody went gaga over the cinnamon rolls and, thankfully, my class showed all of the appreciation for my mother’s efforts that I lacked.

Until recently, my second-grade callousness was the closest I ever came to a cupcake controversy, completely unaware of a growing number of cupcake bans in schools from sea to shining sea.

It seemed to pass me by even when my own kids were in elementary school. Like all parents, I was hoping for a chance to vicariously correct all of my petty childhood complaints, but both my kids would rather die than have their birthdays publicly acknowledged in any way.

Me: Your birthday is next week!

My child: Yes!

Me: Want to have a party?

My child: Nooooooo.

Me: Can I at least send treats for your class?

My child: Do you even know me at all?

And since the opportunity passed me by, so did the debate about whether or not cupcakes belong in the classroom at all. I hadn’t thought much about it, and when I did start thinking about it, I wasn’t sure exactly where I stood or what was really at the center of the debate. Is this about protecting kids with serious food allergies? Protecting kids from foodborne illnesses from unsanitary home kitchens? Accommodating various cultural/religious/lifestyle food preferences? Protecting teachers from kids strung out on sugar at 1:30 p.m. while wielding blunt scissors? Or, like my favorite multiple-choice test option, is it all of the above?

I took to the streets (and by streets, I mean Facebook) to understand the issue and get some perspective and answers. My friends include a diverse group of parents, teachers, school administrators, and even peanut allergy sufferers. They’ve been on the front lines of this debate, so I asked their help to understand.

From the Pro-Cupcake Side

For my friend Jenny, it comes down to having a little fun: “I feel strongly that [birthday sweets] should be allowed. These kids work so hard at school with less recess and gym and playtime than ever and should be able to have some treats and ‘fun’ time!”

Christine teaches elementary school in Utah and agrees that birthday treats are a fun way for her students to share part of themselves with their peers, especially if the treat is a personal favorite. In her experience, alternative treats like toys or trinkets can be a nice break from sugary cupcakes, but are often more distracting. (Looking at you, classroom of Fidget Spinners.)

In Germany, where my friend Kelly’s kids go to school, homemade treats are encouraged for birthdays. In fact, they even have a “break store” open during 15-minute class breaks where homemade food (both savory and sweet) is sold to raise funds for the school, an idea that makes me want to hop the first plane to Germany with all the spare change in my pocket, regardless of the debate at hand, because OMG BREAK STORE!

Rounding out the pro-cupcake perspectives is my friend Ann, a grandmother, who is all for birthday treats for the class, but acknowledges that she “grew up in America’s reckless days.”

For this faction, the cupcake (or other sweet birthday treat) is a small and harmless pleasure that represents something bigger: celebration, self-expression, community, and fun. Personally, I love celebration, self-expression, community and fun! That’s it, I’m pro-cupcake!

(Image credit: Maria Siriano)

From the Pro-Ban Side

Okay, wait. I’ve gotten ahead of myself. As with any worthy debate, there are other perspectives to consider. For my friend Jennifer in Pennsylvania, a ban on birthday treats keeps sugary junk food out of regular rotation for her kids. She supports her school’s policy, which prohibits students from bringing birthday treats. However, the school itself provides popcorn machines, snow cones, and other fun food for special school-wide events like Field Day, which Jennifer considers “a great compromise.”

Ann, a school administrator in Utah, was involved in the decision to ban homemade birthday treats in her school district. (Store-bought treats with thorough labeling are allowed.) “Treats coming from private homes have proven to be unsafe for allergy (in particular peanut) and sanitary concerns in some homes.” It was impossible to guarantee safety for all students, and even more impossible to determine who should and shouldn’t be allowed to bring homemade treats, so a ban on all homemade treats was a logical solution.

As the mom of an allergic child, Kim in Virginia appreciated the total ban of birthday treats, homemade or store-bought, at her school. “My son has now outgrown his peanut allergy,” she says, “but I would have had to opt him out [of all treats] because you can never risk getting even a small amount of peanut ingested.” The sentiment was echoed by Eric in New York who has a severe peanut allergy and opted out of many a birthday treat throughout his childhood, understanding from a young age that he had to be even more vigilant than teachers or other parents who didn’t fully understand the risk, even if the treat was store-bought. “If there was a questionable food being offered to you (cookies that potentially had pieces of nuts, cupcakes that had a strange looking frosting, poorly labeled Halloween candy which had a vague gooey filling inside), you just didn’t risk the long-term consequences of being dead for the short-term reward of a delicious snack.” After all, as he puts it, “nothing is more delicious than not dying.”

Making potentially life-threatening decisions during the school day seems an unfair burden to put on any child, in my opinion. And it seems particularly cruel for children to have to turn away upwards of 30 treats throughout the school year in order to, you know, live to turn in tomorrow’s book report.

A Non-Conclusive Conclusion

I love a homemade cupcake, but now I’m finding myself landing squarely in Pro-Ban territory.

Is there room for everyone when it comes to the Great Cupcake Debate? Is there a way to celebrate kids without putting others at risk? Is there a way to regulate “fun” without sucking all the fun out of it?

Oh, and one more thing: Mom, I’m sorry for being a jerk about the cinnamon rolls.

What’s your kids’ school’s policy on the Great Cupcake Debate? Do you agree or disagree with it?