MANCHESTER — It’s probably best to leave those cupcakes at home.
The Board of School Committee on Wednesday voted 10-5 in favor of a policy that would limit sweet-filled school birthday — and holiday — parties to one per month.
Additional parties could be held, as long as “nutrition standards for healthy snacks are followed.”
The change was only one component of an update to the Manchester district’s “wellness and nutrition policy,” but it proved to be the most controversial, garnering widespread media attention.
The board on Wednesday was clearly interested in moving onto weightier topics, but not before engaging in spirited debate over the “cupcake policy” and the larger issue of how to regulate nutrition in the schools.
Ward 10 school board member John Avard assailed the treat restrictions and the larger impetus behind guidelines issued in recent years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which largely funds the food programs in Manchester and other districts around the country.
“Let’s face the facts — I don’t think any child got obese by eating school food. The poor dietary habits are coming out of households,” he said.
Avard called the new nutrition policies “a disaster,” arguing that they have resulted in meals that are so unpalatable to students that they get tossed in the trash, and the students look to snacks and junk food for calories.
“Maybe it’s time we as a district stand up and say, ‘We’re going to feed our kids properly.’”
But supporters of the nutrition policy said the district was obligated to promote healthy food while kids are in school, especially in light of the epidemic of obesity among young people.
“I know it’s a difficult decision to make,” Superintendent Thomas Brennan said. “But the more we read about obesity, the more I think there’s an appropriate role to play in education, in telling people what food’s OK or not. There are plenty of places where kids can get that type of food, but I don’t think that it belongs in the school house.”
Ward 3 board member Christopher Stewart noted that it wasn’t long ago that students were allowed to smoke cigarettes on campuses.
“I have no interest in controlling what a parent does at home, but on school property I believe we should do everything we can to promote healthy habits,” he said.
Ward 8 board member Erika Connors noted that many other districts, including Bedford, had enacted nutrition policies that restricted the kind of snacks kids could have outside the cafeteria.
“There are even more strict policies than this. I think we need to look at what other districts are doing, and move forward so we can get to the real issues at hand,” she said.
Ward 11 board member Jason Cooper noted that he was able to purchase cookies and a cupcake at the Central High concession stand before the meeting, which he placed in front of him.
“Why is it OK for fund-raising,” he asked Brennan.
Brennan replied, “I do have a problem if that is what’s sold, and I have a problem with what’s sold at bake sales.”
Mayor Ted Gatsas stressed that the federal government reimburses the district for the cost of most of the meals it provides, and the district was obligated to comply with the nutrition standards it was advocating.
Sue Sheehy, the district’s consultant dietitian, said the USDA required districts to have a wellness policy. “That is the law, and we need to follow it,” she said.
As for why the policies didn’t apply to bake sales and concessions, Sheehy said, “At this time, they’re not asking us to address (that).”
Several districts across the country have taken steps to restrict sweets in schools, including Portland, Maine.
Healthy school food has been promoted by First Lady Michelle Obama, and in February the USDA issued “Smart Snacks in School” guidelines.
At the same time, it released a fact sheet that noted, “the USDA has no role in regulating foods brought from home. The proposed standards do not apply to any foods brought to school in bagged lunches, or for birthday parties and special events, including after-school bake sales and fundraisers.”
Those voting for the nutrition policy, with the party food restrictions, were school board members Stewart, Connors, Dave Gelinas, Art Beaudry, Sarah Ambrogi, Ted Rokas, Kathy Staub, Roy Shoults, Dan Bergeron and Mayor Gatsas.
Voting against it were board members Avard, Cooper, Dave Wihby, Roger Beauchamp and Debra Gagnon Langton.