SURF CITY - Citing concerns over spreading the H1N1 virus, encouraging childhood obesity, protecting students with allergies and economic hardship among parents, the Long Beach Island Consolidated School district is prohibiting in-classroom birthday celebrations with food.
The decision has pitted parents, the administration and teachers against one another in what has become known locally as the cupcake debate.
"Food is part of a celebration. It's special to celebrate a child's birthday and let them break bread with their friends," said mother, former teacher and district Parent Teacher Association member Annemarie Deakyne, of Harvey Cedars.
Deakyne said she and other mothers at the Ethel Jacobsen School would like to see the new policy abolished.
"I just think the things we remember so fondly as children, I look forward to my children experiencing, like having a birthday celebration at school with food in the classroom," she said.
She added that surrounding school districts are still holding birthday celebrations inside the classroom with food.
"We're such a small district. Some classes only have 12 or 13 kids. And it doesn't have to be a cupcake that we bring in or something sweet like that. The kids just feel special bringing something in on their day," she said.
District Superintendent Robert Garguilo said the policy was instituted to protect students. The termination of cupcake celebrations in the classroom was three years in the making, beginning with the state-mandated policy on wellness and nutrition, according to a timeline prepared by the district.
"Children do not need to be rewarded with food. The decision was unanimous regarding this policy," Garguilo said last week.
He said he also was concerned about students contracting foodborne illnesses through food brought in from outside the school. Issues also considered were students with food allergies and parents who cannot afford to purchase food for an in-school birthday celebration, despite a $300 budget that was set aside for each classroom for birthday snacks if parents could not afford them.
The Christmas party held last week at the school was not the typical holiday celebration - there were no candies, cookies, cakes, potato chips or other junk food. Instead, the cafeteria provided bagels, muffins, cream cheese, yogurt, fruit and other healthy foods as party fare - and that was fine with Marlene Ortiz, 27, the mother of a 6-year-old and 9-year-old. Ortiz said she feels more comfortable, considering the H1N1 flu, that food is not being brought into the classroom from outside.
"There's only a few moms against this. It needs to be laid to rest. At the end of the day, it's just a cupcake. Honestly, this is why we have birthday parties outside of school," Ortiz said.
"I'm glad unhealthy snacks are not coming into the school. They're supposed to be setting a healthy example in school with snacks and lunches," she said.
Tougher mandates and food guidelines continue to come down from the state and affect schools nationwide. Districts must make decisions to protect students from allergies, illness and obesity. In September 2008, the district began separating students at lunchtime based on what they ate. Students who ate peanut butter or peanut products had to sit separately, to protect those with food allergies. A year later, the faculty of the Ethel Jacobsen School unanimously agreed to celebrate student birthdays without food.
"It's not like we aren't recognizing them at all on their birthday. We've replaced food with other things," Garguilo said.
When a student has a birthday, the child's picture is displayed on the front hall calendar for the entire month, he said. The day of his or her birthday, the student is recognized by all the teachers, and the birthday is announced to the entire school on the morning announcements, he said.
"They're also getting a special treat from the principal, and they're doing special things in the classroom, just no food," he added.
On the day of the student's birthday, the child, along with every student in his or her class, gets a card good for a free snack at lunchtime. School officials said they will even make up summer birthdays during the school year.
But that is not enough for Deakyne.
"I am passionate about this because I am a former teacher. They'll probably change the policy back in a few years, but it will be too late. My kids will be in middle school," she said.
Contact Donna Weaver:
Birthday celebration cafeteria snack list
100 calorie pack of Oreos or chocolate chip cookies
Baked potato chips
8-ounce fruit juice
16-ounce flavored water
Goldfish pretzel crackers
Low-fat ice cream, muffins, cookies
Source: Long Beach Island Consolidated School District