Jennifer Nickels' complaints about a teacher rewarding her 7-year-old daughter and other Dundee Highlands Elementary School students with candy during the school day prompted a schoolwide survey in April that polled parents' thoughts about the sweets.
The candy issue came to her attention, she said, in March when her daughter received candy twice in one week and three times the following week. She later discovered the Nerds and Laffy Taffy had been given out since the beginning of the school year.
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While Nickels was concerned the candy could lead to poor nutritional habits, childhood obesity and other health issues, the sweets remained in place after a majority of parents completing the survey said they didn't have an issue with teachers handing them out at the West Dundee school.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a third of American children and adolescents were overweight or obese in 2012. Obese children and adolescents are likely to be obese as adults and are more at risk for adult health problems such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer, and osteoarthritis, according to the center.
Policies about candy and sweets and other treats doled out during the school day vary across the suburbs. Here is what a few districts are doing to address the issue with school starting next month.
Cupcakes and quinoa
Rather than ban sweet treats outright, Fremont School District 79 in Mundelein takes a more nuanced approach. Staff members and parents are allowed to provide them since they also supply healthy food, said Margaret Van Duch, the district's communications coordinator.
"It's the cupcake and quinoa wars," Van Duch said. "In every district you have, you have people that feel cupcakes should be served at the parties and some people feel like there should be no sweets whatsoever, and our district feels like there should be a balance. ... You can't completely eliminate everything."
Pointing to childhood obesity trends, as well as statewide health and wellness legislation, the school district adopted a 10-page wellness plan in 2007.
As part of that, the district encourages school staffers to use nonfood incentives for student rewards and to provide healthy food and beverages at school functions and parties.
Examples of nonfood awards, as outlined in the policy, include extra credit, a class field trip, a congratulatory phone call or email sent to parents or guardians, and a smile.
A team oversees the wellness plan and promotes an exercise component in the district, as well as lists 25 fundraising ideas that don't involve food sales and 23 examples of healthy food and beverages for school events.
Change wasn't easy and a half dozen parents rebelled at first, Superintendent Jill Gildea said.
"There's no such thing as small change -- any change is going to have some pushback," Gildea said. "Food is such an important part of our tradition and culture in America, so the idea that if you have a class of 26 kids and you have 26 kids bring cupcakes 26 times during the year, that's a lot of sugar, if you think about it."
No umbrella policy
In Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300, officials are looking to improve communication of district policy as well as increase the level of consistent practice among schools, Associate Superintendent Sarah Kedroski said via email.
In response to the schoolwide survey at Dundee Highlands, Kedroski asked the leaders of all 21 schools to summarize their current practices for giving out candy during school hours and found they are consistent among all of the schools.
Every school also has healthy snack guidelines in their handbooks.
On occasion, Kedroski said, teachers and other school staff members may offer candy or cookies to students as part of a celebration.
Children are allowed to bring snacks from home and parents can also supply treats for birthday celebrations and holidays. School staffers and administrators encourage those items to be healthy, Kedroski said.
Student wellness, including good nutrition and physical activity, are promoted in the district's educational programs, school activities and meal programs, Kedroski said.
"All District 300 schools are committed to providing a school environment that enhances learning and the development of lifelong good health," Kedroski said.
Sweets not welcome
Officials in Arlington Heights School District 25 took healthy eating habits a step further by discouraging parents from providing cake, cupcakes and other sweets for school birthday celebrations.
They recommend parents distribute books and pencils to children on birthdays, instead of cake or cupcakes.
Other birthday cake substitutes for students include eating lunch with principals, giving announcements on a particular day or reading to their class.
That policy has been in place for six years.
"In general, there was concern -- we wanted kids to be as healthy as possible and create an environment where that was supported, and we had parent support," Superintendent Sarah Jerome said. "It all seemed like a natural flow."
A wellness policy aligning all food with the USDA's nutritional guidelines already prevented teachers in Kaneland Community School District 302 from serving junk food to children during the school day.
A major change is in store for the district's lower grades come this fall.
As part of a new policy, the district has banned staffers and parents from handing out treats to kids from kindergarten through fifth grade, said Sarah Mumm, director of education services.
The reason has nothing to do with nutrition and everything to do with allergies to peanuts, soybeans and all dairy products.
"We have a lot more students coming in with several allergies to a variety of foods," Mumm said. "To be safe, we're not going to provide food treats."
As part of the policy, treats will no longer be served during birthdays, school events and holidays.
In the past, kids could look forward to eating Rice Krispies bars, granola bars and cheese and crackers at school events.
Now, children can expect books, crafts, games, word and scavenger hunts to replace them.
"We're hoping it goes pretty good, but we'll see what happens when Halloween comes around," Mumm said.