Bake Sale Ban Misses the Point

cupcakesThese cupcakes only look sweet and innocent. (Photo by Jupiterimages / Banana Stock / Thinkstock.)

The elementary school bake sale: Is there anything more wholesome, more well-meaning, more blameless? I mean, raising money for underfunded school programs by selling cookies and brownies — doesn’t that make bake sales something like the Switzerland of annual events?

And yet, here we stand a day after the news hit that Massachusetts education and health officials are banning bake sales, which they say endanger children’s health by encouraging poor eating habits. Starting August 1, bake sales will be prohibited during school hours, and the plan is to expand the law beyond the school day to include the sale of pizza, hot dogs, and candy at games and other after-school events. All of which means the bake sale is starting to look less like neutral territory and more like North Korea. How did this happen?

Who among us doesn’t remember standing beside a picnic table in elementary school, eyes scanning the tin-foil-lined shoe boxes stuffed with M&M-speckled cookies, frosted cupcakes, wax-paper-wrapped popcorn balls, and fat slices of cake? In one hand we clutched a dollar bill so hard it wilted, while, with the other, we pointed to our carefully chosen confection. “I’ll have that one,” we’d pipe up to the lady behind the table, praying she’d give us a bit of change so we could afford one more. For me, the bake sale was the one time during the year that my mother gave me some money and let me decide what to do with it. And it was that freedom, even more than the treat itself, that was so sweet.

How far we’ve come. Officials are right to be concerned about childhood obesity. “Epidemic” is not too strong a word to describe a crisis in which 17 percent of American kids between the ages of 2 and 19 are obese. The prospects for their future health are chilling. One, because once you reach an unhealthy weight, it’s hard to come back down to a normal one. Two, because, as The New York Times wrote in an editorial yesterday, obesity-related diseases like Type-2 diabetes are also becoming epidemic among the young. Type-2 diabetes used to be called “adult-onset diabetes” because children didn’t get it. Now it’s increasingly common — and troubling, because youth who have it often don’t respond well to treatment, and if the disease isn’t controlled, it can lead to heart disease, stroke, blindness, amputations, and kidney failure.

But isn’t banning school bake sales a little like trying to put out a fire with a squirt gun? In my kids’ school, bake sales occur once or twice a year. Maybe lawmakers should be working harder to make broader, wholesale changes, like removing high fructose corn syrup from things like ketchup and salad dressing and increasing awareness about the perils of fast food. Then busy, working parents wouldn’t be putting foods on the table that they think are healthy only to scratch their heads when their kids tip the scales.

There are lots of reasons to keep bake sales. For one thing, they’re needed money-makers at a time when school budgets are being cut. And, unlike ketchup, at least brownies are enemies we can see — and, in theory anyway, moderate. But more than that: Haven’t we stripped enough of the fun and freedom from childhood?

Our kids don’t play outside as much as we did, they can’t go trick-or-treating without us dressing up and tagging along, and we’ve orchestrated their every waking moment so that they’re never alone or off-task. Couldn’t we let them have the simple pleasure of selecting a sweet, homemade morsel at a school bake sale a couple times a year, then savoring each bite — as they may one day wish we’d let them savor childhood?