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Turning cupcakes into compassion

Turning cupcakes into compassion
"I heard OREOs are safe for people with allergies."

"Well that depends on what you're allergic to.  If you can't have gluten, soy or chocolate, you can't have OREOs."

I was negotiating with my son's third grade teacher - but this time I wasn't the one sounding desperate, he was.  Desperate because on the sixth day of school, he was about to host the third birthday party of the year - and to watch my son sink down in his chair while his classmates frosted themselves and their neat new desks into a sugar high for the ages.

It's a scene that plays itself out in classrooms across the country day in and day out as school communities struggle to absorb the new reality that between food allergies, obescity, diabetes and more, food is no longer one-size-fits-all. And more than that, to absorb the implications: that the old traditions of cupcakes, brownies and even Thanksgiving feasts that were once used to bring classrooms together are now isolating out some of our most vulnerable children instead. With bullying of all sorts rising in even pace with awareness - if not absolute numbers - of food-triggered health conditions, it's clear that change is needed. But change is hard - all the more so when it's cultural change.

And yet, perhaps it's not cultural change we need at all. After all, these classroom festivities are born of the principles that holidays and special occassions should be marked with community-building, and that birthdays are occasions when each individual child's "specialness" should be celebrated. Surely, these principles are the true basis of culture - while the gluten- and dairy-full cupcakes and sugar-bonded cookies are just the old-fashioned stand-ins that used to embody them.

Used to.

But you see, they don't any more. Now, when we rely on sugary treats, or even what counts as "healthy snacks" under most school policies these days, to build our classroom communities and celebrate our milestones, we inevitably place some child (or the nutrition plan that his or her parents have decided to follow) on the outside of the 'eating tribe' that is his peers. When we use food to define culture, we declare that those who can't eat the way we do are no longer part of that tribe.

And it is a message that is not lost on these kids. Many a time I have joined my son's class parties, a tupperware of home-baked 'safe for him' cupcakes tucked under my arm like a grim, frosted transcript of Plessy v. Ferguson (the Supreme Court case that upheld racial segregation so long as the alternative facilities were "seperate but equal" - a case squarely repudiated 60 years later in Brown v. Board of Ed). And many a time I have gazed sadly around the room as one heavy-set child after another glanced quickly to their left and right before eagerly taking treats I know their parents have barred at home, in a desperate attempt to fight the great American obescity epidemic.  I've seen kids politely if sadly demure on grounds that a single molecule of the butter lurking within could literally kill them from anaphylaxis; I've never seen a kid raise their hand and announce "Mom says I'm fat, so I can't have the cupcakes."

But with this happening in American classrooms every day, can we really wonder and wring our hands as a nation about the obescity epidemic among American school kids? And for all those children - the ones who demure out of fear for their lives and the ones who don't, but probably should - is this really a position we want to put them in at the ripe old age of 5? 6? or even 16? And is the lesson that food (especially the sugary, unnaturally colorful and processed kind) is the only way to come together and build a tribe with others really the lessons we want our classrooms to be used to teach?

But I digress. That afternoon, Birthday Party Number Three on School Day Number Six progressed as planned - and yet something happened that neither my son nor I had expected.  That afternoon, his teacher sat down beside him and watched as tray after tray passed by, laden high with purple frosted, store-bought cupcakes, ripe strawberries, pretzels (all off limits for my son's sensitive histamine & gluten intolerances) and yes - even the OREOs. With each, he quietly asked, "can you eat this?" and with each, he took a long glance at his own empty plate and then passed the food along. At the end of the great food parade, he and my son quietly shared a snack of grapes and melon, having passed on a cornucopia of so much more.

By 4:30 that afternoon, an email went out to all of the parents with kids in the class that year. There would be no more food brought in to celebrate birthdays. Instead, he challenged each of us to bring in something representative of our child's favorite hobbies, interests or books - not their favorite foods.

And so, over the course of the year, our kids learned how to make balloon animals, shot off hydrogen peroxide rockets in the parking lot, created all manner of craft projects and even conducted their own moot court.

And through it all, their culture hadn't changed a bit - though it seemed to us that it shone a bit brighter.

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