NEWBURYPORT — Some parents are finding a ban on candy that went into effect this past week at public schools too far reaching, but school leaders say they are committed to reshaping students' eating practices while under their supervision.
Superintendent Kevin Lyons said the rule applies not just to offerings sold on school grounds, but to what students are allowed to bring in their lunch boxes from home. And that's not sitting well with some parents like Jeffrey Allen, stepfather to two children attending school in the district.
"If a parent wants to give their kid a candy bar to bring to school, what right do they have to tell you what you can and cannot put in your child's lunch?" Allen said. "I don't believe they have that authority."
The ban is part of the school district's newly adopted wellness policy, which Lyons said was developed over the past year in an attempt to address the rising tide of childhood obesity and skyrocketing number of cases of childhood onset diabetes. While the policy won't officially be in place until January, the practice of being more careful with candy and sugary foods and educating parents on the policy will begin immediately, school officials said.
The multi-faceted policy was the subject of several public forums and was developed with the help of parents, administrators and teachers in the district, he said.
A recent survey of district parents found the majority supported ridding candy from the classroom, with many supporting the district's limiting of cupcake parties and food-based reward systems, Lyons said.
"Clearly lots of high sugar and high fat things coming into classrooms on a regular basis. I think most people would agree is not a good thing," Lyons said. "And having food be the center of every celebration needs to be rethought."
Candy and soda are the only two items strictly prohibited under the new policy, with other items like cupcakes and doughnuts being allowed on a limited basis. Lyons said the individual school councils and principals will develop guidelines in the next few weeks that address "cupcake parties" and what types of foods will be allowed under the policy. Councils will also decide whether or not schools will continue selling ice cream to students as they do now, but exceptions for candy will only be made in cases where students with medical conditions require it.
Otherwise, he doesn't see a huge segment of the student population will be affected by the ban.
"There's little to no soda that I know of now (in the schools)," Lyons said. "I don't think candy is a big issue. If it were instituted today in terms of its full implementation, there's just not a huge problem on the basis of volume that we're dealing with."
Although many school districts across the country have initiated similar wellness policies addressing the limiting of candy and soda, most of those have dealt strictly with doing away with unhealthy items being sold in the school cafeteria, school stores and in vending machines on school property.
More extreme cases have garnered national attention.
Media outlets from across the country descended on a New Haven, Conn., school last spring, when an eighth-grade honors student was suspended and stripped of his title of class vice president, all for purchasing a pack of Skittles from another student. The action was rescinded amid public outcry.
An Austin, Texas, school district plagued by student black market candy activity ended up relaxing its ban and placing some types of candy back in school vending machines based on the notion that all candy is not created equal.
Both districts restricted the sale of candy on school property, but Allen feels that by regulating what food items parents are packing in their child's lunch, Newburyport is taking matters to a whole new level of extreme.
Allen says he doesn't have a problem with majority rule in schools since they're public places, and agrees the school can develop policies based on public opinion when it comes to what it sells in vending machines and in the cafeteria.
"(The school) is public property, and if there's a moral majority that doesn't want it there, take it out," he said. There's nothing that says we have to have sweets and candy vending machines in the school."
But regulating what we feed our kids borders on unconstitutional, and the lunch box should be off-limits, Allen said.
My biggest concern is that government is eating away at our rights," Allen said. "It does open up a Pandora's Box when you think of it, because where do you draw the line? The government is pretty much trying to think for you."
With Halloween approaching, many parents who traditionally allow kids a bite sized candy or two in the lunch box are reminded that doing so is now against school policy, although full implementation isn't expected until the first of the New Year. But parents shouldn't worry about their child being punished should they sneak a piece.
"We're not going to be inspecting student lunch boxes when they enter school," Lyons said. "We expect when there are issues, that reasonable communication with parents will resolve the issue. I just don't see that it's just going to be anything looking like police action."
But Lyons still expects parents to adhere to the policy.
"Our policy says we do not allow candy," he said. "Most find a reasonable manner to advise kids as to how much to eat. Eat it at home."