As a school committee member, one of the questions I get asked most often about any holiday we celebrate in schools is “Will you be banning sweets this year?” I’m always surprised by this question because the practice of bringing in sweet treats is itself a longstanding cultural tradition in my school system. In fact, I think there would be people with pitchforks and torches in my yard if we banned this practice.
A friend sent me this article this morning with the provocative title “School Bans Valentine’s Day Candy,” making me revisit this topic. In this case, the principal explained the rationale for the ban to parents like this:
We are working to encourage healthy practices as well as manage food choices in classrooms where food allergies are present in order to maintain a safe environment.
Similarly, other schools across the US have made the choice to limit or ban candy and other indulgent food. The rationale is the same in almost every case: wellness and safety.
At a recent staff gathering at NICHQ I asked the question: Why do we ban things in the name of health? In public health, we use law and regulation to ensure public safety and prevent illness and death. It seems like the right thing to do: ban the things that are bad for people and promote or incentivize the things that are good for health. In particular, schools become targets for these kinds of strategies. But what is the evidence that this actually works?
In our work to prevent childhood obesity, for example, many states have implemented policies to limit or ban sweetened beverages in public schools. The link between sugary drinks and obesity is well-researched. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, children and adults are drinking more sugary drinks than ever before, and there is evidence that both children and adults are better able to control their weight when they reduce their consumption of sugared beverages.
Based on this evidence, it seems like the right thing to do to ban sugary drinks in schools. Unfortunately, the literature presents a mixed bag regarding whether these policies actually reduce student consumption of those drinks overall, and in turn reduces obesity. A 2012 national survey in 40 states by Taber et al. illustrates this point. Taber and his colleagues found that while fifth and eighth grade public school students reduced their access to sugar-sweetened beverages, these children had not reduced their consumption of these drinks. It’s still early in our battle with childhood obesity, and many child advocates are still experimenting with these policies.
If I’ve learned one thing from NICHQ’s work in the obesity space, it is that there is no one magic bullet to prevention and reduction of obesity. It takes multi-sector partnerships including all stakeholders to try to move the big dot toward healthier children. Policies to restrict access to foods linked with increased obesity are only part of an arsenal of tools we have tried to curb obesity. As we continue to experiment using policies limiting or banning access as a means to improve public health, we can benefit from applying quality improvement approaches to test our ideas.
In our community of North Reading, my school committee has never voted to ban candy or any other food item in my history of being on the committee. We prefer to think of policy as something we create in the greater context of student well-being and change, setting the foundation for application of evidence-based practice. Simply banning a food item is a band-aid on a larger problem that deserves a comprehensive approach. We still have a long way to go on the topic of childhood obesity, and we owe it to our children to think outside the cupcake.
What are your thoughts about banning Valentine’s Day candy to improve child health? Please share your thoughts by commenting!
Karen Sautter Errichetti is a two-term elected member of the North Reading School Committee in Massachusetts. The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of NICHQ.