Last year, Jennifer Herivel was surprised by the “no junk food” decree that came from her son’s kindergarten teacher as the annual Halloween classroom party approached.

Spooky healthy snacks were served to students at a classroom Halloween party at Fort Collins’ Bauder Elementary School. <em>Photo courtesy Brian Carpenter</em>

But Herivel, whose son Brayden is now a first-grader at Redstone Elementary in Highlands Ranch, gamely cooperated, pulling together a buffet of fruits, vegetables and popcorn.

Herivel, who served as room mother for the class, also arranged a healthy spread for the winter holiday party. Some parents, especially those with older children who got sweet treats in their classrooms, griped about the restriction. So, organizers allowed Rice Krispies treats.

“We kind of pushed the envelope,” Herivel said.

Reflecting on the experience a year later, Herivel is grateful that Brayden had such a health-conscious teacher and a kindergarten experience so focused on healthy foods.

“I look back on it and it’s not like the kids cared,” Herivel said. “The kids would sit and eat the veggies… They’ll eat whatever’s in front of them.”

Herival said Brayden never complained about the dearth of treats in his classroom and continues to be a healthy eater this year in first grade. She’s seen him pass up cupcakes and other sweets even when they are available in his classroom.

While Herivel’s experience may not be the norm, the push for healthy foods at school celebrations is growing in many Colorado schools. In some cases, it’s new wellness policies that have created the momentum. In others, it’s wellness coordinators, parents, teachers or principals who are experimenting with creative new ideas for throwing healthy classroom parties.

Prompting these changes is a growing awareness that childhood obesity is a widespread problem and that public schools can play a key role in turning the tide.

“More and more people are recognizing what a toxic food environment we have,” said Leslie Levine, technical assistance coordinator for LiveWell Colorado, an organization focused on reducing obesity.

There’s also a growing awareness about the connection between food and academic achievement, said Levine.

“Filling kids with sugar isn’t good for learning.”

Changing the culture

To Brian Carpenter, principal of Bauder Elementary in Fort Collins, the path to healthier party food comes down to changing habits and mindsets, usually of adults who grew up with sugary spreads at their own classroom parties. It’s not about replacing all sweet treats with vegetables, he said, but finding a balance between the two.

“You can have a cookie. Cookies are not the end of the world, but if that’s all we’re offering, that’s not OK.”

Fun activities at a classroom Halloween party at Bauder Elementary School in Fort Collins. <em>Photo courtesy Brian Carpenter</em>

Earlier this year at Bauder, which  has a wellness focus, Carpenter worked with the four third grade teachers to pilot a healthier Halloween party. At the party, healthy foods were presented with a fun twist. Carrots and yellow squash were laid out on plates to look like jack-o’-lanterns. Students were also asked to create several Halloween-themed food sculptures using a variety of items, including cheese sticks, bananas, almonds, apples, green peppers, chocolate cookies and chocolate kisses.

Finally, the third grade teachers pooled some of their classroom funds to pay for a substitute physical education teacher. That freed up the regular p.e. teacher to run an obstacle course in the gym for the party. Later this winter, Carpenter hopes to expand some of the third grade initiatives to other grades.

Carpenter admits that breaking with the tradition of sugar-laden school parties can cause friction.

“You’re always going to have this faction of people who say, ‘I’m so tired of wellness. I’m so tired of nutrition.”

Overall though, he’s heard very few critical comments about Bauder’s healthier party approach. When parents stop by their child’s classroom party they see kids “having a great time.”

Efforts to shift the focus of classroom parties away from food are also underway in Weld County District 6. To that end, wellness specialist Jenna Schiffelbein used grant money to purchase 16 classroom party kits that have themes like bingo, board games, charades or dance party. The dance party kit, which includes a boom box, age-appropriate CDs and a disco ball, has proved especially popular so far.

Food focus is hard to shake

Marcella Lunt, the mother of two boys who attend Skyview Elementary in Windsor, has found that it’s not always easy to shake holiday traditions that have long depended on an abundance of baked goods and candy.

Lunt, who is the room mother for her first-grade son’s class, said when soliciting party contributions from other parents she doesn’t ask for anything but healthy snacks. She also refrains from using candy as a prize in party games.

“I do think kids will eat the healthy stuff if the other stuff is not put out right away.” – Marcella Lunt, parent

Discussing plans for this Friday’s holiday party, Lunt said, “I don’t want to disappoint parents or children by not having what they see as traditional or festive, but I know these kids are getting candy canes around every corner.”

Plus, she’s discovered through experience that sweets creep in to class parties, invited or not. She brought a small bag of Tootsie Rolls to her first-grader’s Halloween party just in case there were no sweets at all. One parent brought in “dirt cup” pudding treats and another brought cookies. There were also goodie bags containing some candy that went home with the children. She opted not to open up the bag of candy she brought.

Ultimately, Lunt says she’s comfortable with parents contributing the occasional dessert item for classroom parties and noted that she usually allows for a “make-your-own” activity incorporating sweets.

“I do think kids will eat the healthy stuff if the other stuff is not put out right away,” Lunt said.

Wellness policies weigh in

Many schools and districts have created guidelines and policies that outline acceptable food options for school functions, including classroom parties. For example, the Poudre School District in Fort Collins specifies in its “Strategic Direction” document that 50 percent of food at school-sponsored functions should be fruits, vegetables or non-sugar sweetened beverages.

“Ultimately, It’s up to the principal to encourage that among teachers,” said the district’s wellness coordinator Ashley Schwader.

In Weld County District 6, the wellness policy requires that healthy food options make up 100 percent of party fare, up from 50 percent in the old policy. The policy, which was updated in 2011, also includes a detailed description of what qualifies as “healthy,” detailing the maximum percentage of fat, saturated fat and sugar permitted.

There’s still a long way to go, said Schiffelbein, the wellness specialist.

“It’s hard to know everything that’s going on. You certainly don’t want to be the food police.”

Tracy Faigin Boyle, vice president of marketing and communications for LiveWell Colorado, led the health and wellness committee at Lowry Elementary in Denver when it drew up wellness guidelines suggesting that healthy food always be included in classroom parties. Some teachers think it’s great; others like to give out treats, she said.

The committee also worked with the school’s cafeteria manager to make a tasty cafeteria item available for in-school birthday and holiday celebrations. Topped with a light cream cheese frostings, the sweet potato muffins are now called “Lowry Soar Cupcakes” and can be ordered by parents for 25 cents each.

Does her third- grade daughter like them?

“They look like cupcakes so she’s fine with that.”