This year, Pamela Lovelace altered her recipe for her red velvet devil’s food cake for her kids’ school spring fundraiser, adding a dash of pique with just a hint of vengeance.
The Halifax-area mother of two and president of her children’s school association was not about to be bullied by the province’s school nutrition policy that appeared to ban the Maritime tradition of “cake walks” in which calorie-laden cakes are raffled off to raise money.
“Somebody pointed out that my cake had balls,” Ms. Lovelace said this week about her creation, which was covered in double chocolate mocha icing and decorated with big chocolate spheres. “There’s really a bigger issue here around the nanny state question, the effective role of government to serve the public. This really isn’t about cake.”
Her opposition attracted front-page headlines, an editorial cartoon and was fodder for talk-radio shows. It also provoked a heated debate about who should dictate what students eat – and pitted Ms. Lovelace against advocates for healthy eating in schools, who want the province to go even farther in clamping down on sweets and fatty foods.
“My argument would be we don’t need to always have to celebrate with food … we can have fun without stuffing our faces,” says Dr. Sara Kirk, Canada Research Chair in Health Services Research at Dalhousie University, whose research has found that obese kids between the ages of 10 and 14 cost the health-care system 21 per cent more than normal-weight children.
Caught in the middle of the cake fight is Nova Scotia’s Education Minister, Ramona Jennex, who acknowledged this week that there was a miscommunication, resulting from a confusing memo sent in late May to schools, school boards and parents suggesting a ban on cake walks.
It seems now, however, that Ms. Lovelace’s cake was legal.
“There is definitely no ban,” explained Ms. Jennex, who was forced to do some damage control this week.
Rather, Ms. Jennex noted, there was a “disconnect” in terms of the policy around what food can be served at fundraisers (no foods of “minimal nutritional value,” including French fries; hot dogs; corn dogs or Pogos; Donairs; doughnuts; cakes or cupcakes; and pies) and what was allowed at fairs and special functions.
Once or twice a month, she says, schools are allowed to have celebrations that include foods from the “minimal nutritional value” list.
And although money is raised through cake walks, she does not classify them as a “fundraiser.”
“This is not an issue around banning the extras,” she says. “It is an issue of balance.” She says the provincial policy, which was originally implemented in 2006, aims to “shift the whole paradigm of food for children” so that choosing a healthy option is the norm.
On Thursday, Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter added to the debate, announcing an initiative called “Thrive!” He wants school boards and schools to provide 30 minutes of “quality daily physical education” as well as increase “food knowledge and skills” across the province.
Efforts to curb childhood obesity are mounting in schools across the country. In September, Ontario brought in its “School Food and Beverage Policy,” which stipulates nutrition standards for food and beverages in schools. It allows for a principal, in consultation with the school council, to designate 10 special event days – pizza days or chocolate bar drives – where the nutritional standards are ignored.
Prince Edward Island Health Minister Doug Currie takes a harder line – he believes that even fundraising traditions such as cake walks should be “re-examined.”
“Cake walks and bake sales are from an era when kids didn’t wear helmets or sit in car seats and many people smoked in their homes and cars,” he says.
But Halifax dietician Anna Threadcraft says cake should not be the enemy. Rather, kids have to learn “disciplined freedom.”
“When we forbid something, we tend to want it more,” she says. “I think a carrot walk doesn’t have the same appeal ...”
A carrot walk might not have helped bring in the more than $25,000 that Ms. Lovelace’s school has raised over the past two years for a playground that the entire community can use. This, at a time when the province is cutting back on funding. Ms. Lovelace says she’s all for healthy eating, but she doesn’t want her kids to “feel bad about food.”
Dr. Kirk, who last year measured and weighed 5,000 grade-school children in Nova Scotia, has found some success with the nutrition policy. The obesity rate does not seem to have improved, but the study has found kids are drinking fewer sugary fruit drinks and pop.
“The fact is we have to protect our children from an environment that is frankly killing them,” she says. “And we are seeing that on a day to day basis ... children are developing chronic conditions that they shouldn’t be having at their age.”