Sarah Lemanczyk, St. Paul, is a writer and independent radio producer. She teaches radio production at the University of Minnesota's Radio K.
It was my son's birthday. Following 21st century birthday protocol, we went to the grocery store to pick out a non-homemade, individually wrapped, peanut- and soy-nut-free, non-sugar snack to share with his first-grade classmates. He chose mini-carrots. And he was excited about it.
Don't laugh. These are the rules and he doesn't know any better. Think about it — children celebrating with mini-carrots. As adults, are there any milestones we celebrate with raw vegetables? Congrats on landing that dream job — this calls for some turnips!
Yes, we are fat and getting fatter, and as a nation we're facing an obesity epidemic that puts our children's very lives at risk. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is responding to the threat with a ban on the sale of large-size sugary drinks in restaurants and movie theaters. Elsewhere, elementary schools are the first line of defense. I know for certain only two things about this:
1. It's a serious problem, and saddling first graders with a paunch (not to mention Type 2 Diabetes) will make both middle school and life that much tougher; and
2. I should have bought stock in a mini-carrot farm years ago.
Let's go back in time: I am in first grade at Sauk Trail Elementary School, and we celebrate everything with sugary treats. I'm talking birthdays, Christmas, Halloween, Easter and National Dairy Month (it was Wisconsin). I know, you can't look back. But if I did look back just once more, I'd tell you that there were 23 of us lined up next to Mrs. Nelson in that 1978 class photo, smiling back in orange, brown or orange and brown stripes.
In 2012, that same photo has 30 kids, each one clad in an even more ironic Gen X product-placement T-shirt. (Assuming about 10 mini-carrots per kid, that's 300 carrots per birthday, times 30 birthdays — damn investing hindsight!) But, assuming that these seven additional kids have only one birthday each per year, it's hard to believe the argument that today's larger classes and their seven extra cupcakes put our schools at risk for a full-scale pastry invasion.
But we need an obesity scapegoat. Birthday sugar-treats, you're it.
So, as 100-percent fruit juice, cupcakes and candy corn form an axis of evil, we muster a coalition of raisins, mini-carrots and water to battle against it. Listen, I know cupcakes have consequences. But merely branding foods as good or bad isn't going to teach our children about self-control, moderation or health.
I struggled with anorexia for a decade, and I can assure you that attaching a set of cascading moral values to food is not a good idea. Yes, my permanently weakened bones are a result of the opposite problem. But fetishizing foods and eliminating choices: These are not the hallmarks of a balanced diet. This I know.
Cupcakes are out there; we need to teach our children how to handle them. We need to give them the tools they need to build a balanced diet. We need to teach them to respect the food they're putting in their bodies, not fear it. Cupcakes have their place in a healthy diet — particularly a child's healthy diet. They're turning 7 — just this once, let them eat cake.