Student Rewards…That Aren’t Junk Food!

Have I mentioned that I’m tired of all the junk food at my daughter’s elementary school? And I am not talking about what they’re serving in the cafeteria. I am talking about the junk food that’s constantly being used for rewards, parties and activities. Here are just a few examples…

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  • “Box top” prizes where winning class gets a donut or cupcake decorating party
  • Skittle sort (why not a button sort, which could even be reused the following year?)
  • Cake for the entire class (from the cafeteria) almost every time a student has a birthday
  • School “spirit” events at fast food restaurants and pizza places
  • “Popsicles with the principal” for top fundraising students
  • Celebrating the 100th day of school by stringing 100 fruit loops onto a necklace (cute idea, but I’m confident some healthier alternatives could be just as much fun)

But rather than just sitting here complaining about these issues, I thought why not do something about it instead?! As you may know, another mom and I teamed up to offer our school a healthier “nut-free” snack list so now we are doing the same when it comes to student rewards. And I’m finding that there’s no better place to brainstorm for ideas than my facebook page (thank you everyone for your wonderful ideas).

So without further ado here’s a long list of student rewards…that aren’t junk food! We plan to submit this list to our school administration and PTA and hope you’ll consider doing the same by downloading the printable version. And as always, please leave any additional ideas in the comments below.

Student Rewards…That Aren’t Junk Food!

(click for printable version)

Group/Class Rewards

  • Extra playground time
  • Pick different seats to sit in for a day
  • Teacher wearing a silly outfit or hat (let the class decide…one reader even said a teacher wore her wedding dress to school!)
  • Afternoon movie (as an individual reward one student could be allowed to select and bring in the movie for the class)
  • Lunch in the classroom
  • Dress up days…let the class vote!
    • Pajama day (can also incorporate sleeping bags/blankets)
    • Crazy hair day
    • Farmer day
    • Stuffed animal day
    • Backward day (wear clothes backward and even follow the class schedule backward!)
    • Camp out day (kids bring sleeping bags and teacher brings a tent)
    • Hat day
  • Book swap party (each child brings a book they no longer want and “trades” with their classmates)
  • An art or craft party
  • A game the class plays together (like bingo or kickball)
  • If it’s warm outside…water play in bathing suits
  • Plant some flowers or plants together at the school
  • Paint birdhouses together to put up at the school
  • Dance party with music
  • Film a short digital video/documentary as a class (for e.g. each student answers a question for the camera) then watches it together afterward

Individual Rewards

  • Lunch or recess time with the principal
  • Books donated to the school library in the student’s honor with a guest reader to read them to the class
  • Extra computer time
  • Go to “specials” (like gym or Spanish class) with a friend’s class instead of your own
  • Sit with a friend from another class at lunch
  • Gift certificate to the school store
  • Lunch with the teacher
  • Sit in the teacher’s chair or at their desk for the day
  • Use a rolling chair/stool at your own desk for the day
  • Sit next to a friend instead of in your own seat for the day
  • Be the “special helper” for the day (running errands to the office, line leader, etc.)
  • Name read over morning announcements
  • Student asked to actually read the morning announcements
  • Choose the story for story time
  • Let a student be the “principal for the day” or the “assistant principal for the day” or even “teacher for the day” (or just for an assignment)
  • “Stinky feet” which means you get to take your shoes off in class
  • Pick something out of a treasure box with prizes like stickers, pencils, erasers toothbrushes, silly bands, etc.
  • Give out “play money” to students that they can spend in a class-wide auction later in the year (auction items can include games, books, etc. and be donated by parents)
  • If students wear uniforms a “no uniform for the day” pass
  • “Family night” bags that kids get to borrow from the teacher for the evening including “lego night” and “movie night”

School Fundraisers

  • Principal can be duct taped to the wall (our school actually did this last year – students had to buy pieces of tape)
  • Principal can kiss a pig in front of the school if a certain amount of money is raised (another example that really happened at a reader’s school)
  • “Teacher car wash” where kids can “buy” buckets of water and wet sponges that they can throw on teachers in car pool line

Birthday Celebrations

  • Class makes fruit smoothies together
  • Small goodie bags with stickers/activities given out to classmates
  • Each kid is given supplies to a make small craft together
  • Birthday card(s) made by the other students
  • Popcorn birthday parties (popcorn is a whole-grain food) served in “popcorn cones” that the kids make themselves out of paper
  • New book donated to class library by birthday student with their parent as the guest reader

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253 thoughts on “Student Rewards…That Aren’t Junk Food!”

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  1. As a teacher, I am all for eliminating sugary snack rewards at school. However, many of your alternatives take an incredibly large amount of time. For example, movies are not allowed in my district. Thats 30-90 min of class time and more screen time (which they also don’t need). Painting birdhouses? That would be a costly and long project. Most of the time these rewards need to be 10 min or less to fit on our already tight academic budget. Thanks.

  2. Actually, recent research suggests that we are over-incentivizing our children in general. Rewards are helpful in some situations, but their overuse detracts from instrinsic motivation.

    1. Absolutely! Children in other countries far outperform our kids without “rewards”. We should find out what is working for them.

  3. My children’s elementary school does not celebrate with food. For Birthdays, parents or someone close to the child are invited to come in and read to the class. The kids love having a loved one come into their classroom. The PTO also runs a program called birthday books. The librarian purchases books and parents have the option of donating one in honor of their child. The PTO then delivers the book to the child. They make deliveries 2x a month. They’re able to keep the book for a few weeks and then send it into the library. My kids love finding their books and it helps replenish our school library.

    For holidays, room parents and parent volunteers usually run centers that involve crafts or quick fun games, like those you’d see on Minute to Win It.

    For box tops, the top selling class wins an extra recess. This only occurs 2-3 times a year.

    For 100th day projects, kids bring in 100 non-edible items that can fit in a gallon size bag or they can make a poster.

  4. Right up there with food rewards is the never-ending stream of low cost “rewards”. Our daughter comes home with so many pencils, buttons, plastic figurines, stickers, GAH! I feel bad that the school and teachers are spending money on things that I give away or recycle.
    I really appreciate some sort of physical activity as a reward, like the dance party or extra recess time listed above. Kids wear uniforms at my daughters school, so free dress days are occasionally given to kids who volunteer.
    Thank you for this list!

  5. Supply your teachers with givables. They can’t pay for all rewards! I bought them for forty years and only had a few parents offer to buy and bring in. Children don’t need rewards, I have had parents come in and tell me that their children work well with a reward system and would like me to buy certain things for their children! Did they offer to buy? Absolutely NOT

    1. Kathy I totally understand. Our teacher just declares that she is having an event and the parents are to pay for it whether we agree with it or not.

      As for your situation, I would ask for a fundraiser to fund the rewards for the kids. If they chose not to put their money where their mouthes were, then it is not really necessary or important. I think the free items above like sitting in different seats or a rolling chair or an Art Project is far better than any food reward.
      I would even be willing to help.

  6. My daughter is in kindergarten in Huntersville and this is our first time dealing with public schools and the ‘reward’ system in general. I am shocked at how much candy is offered as rewards for EVERYTHING on a weekly basis. Preschool was a just a small taste of how much bigger this problem is in elementary school.
    We do not offer candy at home and only offer (sometimes) unprocessed ‘sweet treats’ (such as our own home made cookies or the occasional organic minimal ingredient cookies from the store). Within the first couple months of school, I could tell this was a losing battle. Me vs school. I feel like I’m treading water in a very large ocean with lot’s of big waves.
    I really need to voice my opinion and somehow make it heard or count, but have been hesitant to. Not sure why , but thats my own issue I suppose lol! I love this site because I know I am not in the minority here. I feel so small and voiceless against the candy issue in school because most people feel it’s totally OK. I won’t judge those that do because everyone makes decisions for their own families that they think are best.
    For me, I do not want my daughter being offered candy all of the time! I like the idea of this list above and will maybe make up a nice email and approach the PTA and or principal with it. Seems like a good place to start. Our school system consists of something like 150+ schools in Charlotte/Mecklenburg… so I don’t want to get involved with the entire district, just the school my daughter goes to (and in 2 years my son). I love her elementary school and every other aspect about it; this is my only gripe with the school.

    1. I feel for you Sky. We have the same problem here. Even voicing our opinion here with the Principal was a losing battle. The School is So-So. My Son’s 4th grade teacher wants to do an “engineering project” with graham crackers, frosting, mints, lifesavers and candy canes as a Reward for all their hard work. Why does it have to be made of edible materials loaded with Sugar? My Son already has compulsive eating issues with Sugar. I consider this an unsafe environment for my Son. (Kind of like holding an AA meeting in a bar.) So when presented with the District’s School Wellness Policy instead of changing the materials to something like Saltines or Salt Dough or changing the project to something that is in alignment with their school wellness policy, they offered to exclude my Son sending him to the Principal’s office instead.

      I found this article that provided some help and pointers.

      But for next week’s “engineering sugar fest” where they try to somehow keep 9 year olds with little impulse control from eating while building gingerbread houses with only one teacher to “supervise” (you know she will be munching in the background). We will stay home from school opting to go to the Amusement Park, to studying Physics and Engineering of the rides instead, again without sugar.

  7. The only one I don’t like is pouring water on the teacher during a car wash. I think anything like that is disrespectful to any adult much less a teacher. I guess I liked my teachers too much to think of doing that to them. But then again I am from a different decade. I am retired but enjoying subbing. The craft ideas sound fun to me!

  8. Oh I completely agree with schools striving towards this but I have to say that where I teach, the parents, while well intentioned, have made this very difficult. I teach kindergarten and I have a no processed food rule for classroom treats. No cupcakes, no ice cream, no soda, fruit punch, etc. the only exception that I make for this is our 100 day snack in which kids each get ten of ten item to make a snack of 100 items. For this day, the kids so get ten chocolate chips, ten raisins, ten pretzels, etc.. The only reason I make this exception is that it is something that has been done for a long time, the families look forward to it and I make sure there are healthier items in there too. I wish we could do it all unprocessed but it gets very expensive keeping it all dried fruit and such.

    That being said, despite going over this rule (specifically stating that there are no birthday cupcakes) before school starts and at conferences, I have parents regularly show up with 24 cupcakes wanting me to make an exception for their child’s birthday. It is incredibly frustrating for me because I am trying to keep it healthy and fair for all students. Our rule is that you can bring in a fruit, vegetable, raisins or an activity for the child’s birthday. If there is a kiddo who doesn’t bring something, I find an activity to do. The kids love this and it costs less to buy a bag of cuties (small Oranges) than it does to buy 2; cupcakes so I don’t get the problem here. Please keep promoting your ideas, i am concerned for the future of these kids! (And don’t even get me started about lunches from home for some of these kids- white bread Nutella sandwiches, chips, sugar water and a piece of candy…). I have referred many families to your blog for healthy lunch ideas… But so many people just lack basic nutritional information.

    1. I think this world is getting a little too packed off on the whole treat thing. A treat even once a day isn’t going to hurt any of them! As far as lunches go, its up to the parents what they pack in a lunch from home! How fun for a kid to bring raisins in for a birthday treat??!! If it’s obesity people are concerned about, you ought to think about bringing recess back and gym everyday. I’m sure we are not the norm, but we have no tv at our house and no computer time either. My kids get to play leap pads at times for no more than 45 minutes in a day. We don’t do any organized sports either. Anything they eat gets burned off through play. Maybe it’s the fact that there’s 8 kids total too-they always have someone to run and play with. Maybe everyone should just have more kids-not only is it a blessing to have them but they have built in playmates and parents that are kept busy taking care of them. It leaves little time to be in everyone else’s business and what they are feeding their kids and other piddly things. I’m all for eating in moderation but ultimately it’s up to me what my kids are eating since most eating is done under our roof. I think people’s time would be better spent watching what their kids are eating at home and what they are doing in their free time.

  9. Some of these are good ideas but quite a lot aren’t at all practical for the classroom. I don’t use sweets as rewards, but I do highly value ease, efficiency and cost-effectiveness when choosing incentives.

    Routine is also a very important part of each day, especially for students with learning difficulties, ADHD, autism and disabilities. Also, many of these ideas, such as watching a movie in class, take up significant learning time that simply isn’t available. Whilst submitting your list (or a shorter, edited version ) could bring some positive change, perhaps providing your child with sugar-free alternatives is an easy option that works for everyone?

  10. Extra recess is the easiest and most enjoyed by almost all kids. I do have to agree with most of what NDI said. I am a teacher and many of these ideas are more disruptive to the school day than in necessary for a reward. (Camping with the bags and tents…one word…lice.)
    I did no food birthday treats for years and each child got to pick: lunch in the classroom with me and a friend, extra recess, art time (tagged on to the end of recess), or swap seats and sit next to a friend for the day. Easy, and FREE, and does not require something to be sent in, remembered by parents, or rearranging of your whole day. (Does anyone know how bananas it makes elementary aged kids to have crazy hair day, or any sort of dress up day!?!? Let me tell ya, it’s not easy to keep their attention when they are busy worrying about their green Mohawk!)
    I have to say, treats are ok, sometimes, in moderation. To say you never have food treats is a little sad to me. I know it goes both ways, and I obviously agree that not everything has to be a junky treat, but taking it so far the other way is just not necessary.

  11. Why can’t schools just stop food celebrations and rewards altogether? There is no need that food be used to celebrate or as rewards. There are dozens of non-food great ideas for kids in grade school. My kids have allergies and even many so-called healthy foods don’t work for them.

  12. Our school does lots of fund raisers or drives (for supplies for the less fortunate, food banks, etc) where if the school meets their goal the kids get to vote on something silly for the principle to do. Most recently he had to lip sync during lunch and be made into a human sundae (he was covered with whip cream and they put a cheery on his head). My kids loved seeing him be silly and messy and we incorporated a “sweet treat” into the prize without anyone actually consuming it.

  13. Some of these are nice some of them I would pitch a fit if the school where my foster kids implemented here’s why:

    Backward day (wear clothes backward and even follow the class schedule backward!) — Following a class schedule backwards would impact every other class whose schedules would have to be altered to accommodate.

    Camp out day (kids bring sleeping bags and teacher brings a tent) – not all teachers have tents or have someone willing to borrow them one- they should not have to shell out for this- especially since teachers spend too much on school supplies already.

    Farmer day — so we’re teaching kids to mock farmers? fantastic… how about a nurses day? and engineer’s day, a secretary day or dress like a parent day? No? Yes? If no- then don’t hold up farmers for this either.

    Lunch in the classroom — many teachers have lunch as their only break, I don’t like the idea of taking that away — for any reason

    “Family night” bags that kids get to borrow from the teacher for the evening including “lego night” and “movie night” — more ideas that cost the teacher money? These things are expensive, how about we place these items on the school supply lists and the parents fund them?

    Principal can kiss a pig in front of the school if a certain amount of money is raised (another example that really happened at a reader’s school) I am surprised anyone would do this,,,it’s degrading.

    New book donated to class library by birthday student with their parent as the guest reader not all families can afford this — and not all parents can get off to read a book to their kid’s class. While it might be nice as an **option** it could cause real issues for those kids whose parents can’t get off or can’t afford it.
    at least with the crafts and stickers, dollar stores still exist for poorer families.

    1. Instead of taking these ideas so literally, maybe just take them as suggestions to build on or create what works best for your school & classroom.
      Backward day, turn the desks and chairs to face the back of the room for the day.
      Camp out day, sit in circle around a faux campfire and tell a story with popcorn.
      Farmer Day, let them dress like a farmer and take the opportunity to teach kids how important farmers are to our lives! I live in a farming community and believe that most farmers would not take it as an insult. This could be done for any occupation.
      I think the intent is merely to provide healthier (physical and mental) options for kids.

    2. WOW, you’re a real glass is half empty kind of person! I think this is a wonderful list of IDEAS and SUGGESTIONS! I am worn out from trying to get my (foster/adopted) boys to eat real food when there is constant temptation to eat some processed sugar-loaded food instead EVERY DAY! The argument: “they’re kids”, “it’s Halloween”, “its Easter”, “it’s Christmas”, “it’s Valentines Day”, “it’s their Birthday”, “it’s the weekend”, “it’s just a soda”, and on and on and on. What’s really frustrating though? My son was purposely telling me he was not hungry in the morning…and then getting a pop-tart as a reward in school!
      Anyway, I love this list and appreciate the SUGGESTIONS!

  14. I guess our school is in front of the curve on this one. We celebrated 100 days of school with 100 physical activities (10 jumping jacks, 10 sit ups, etc). No sweets allowed for birthdays, they encourage parents to bring something like a pencil for everyone instead. Fundraising prize is a “dj party” where the kids go and dance themselves silly. We do have a cheesecake fundraiser, and fundraisers at local restaurants – but because of allergies and other childhood illnesses (like a child with diabetes) they have all but eliminated these things in the classrooms. (After school daycare is a whole other animal though, as I found out when they served my daughters ice cream sundaes as “snack” one day)

  15. I think most of these are great ideas. Sure some take away from teaching time, but what do you really think getting the kids hyped up on sugar will do? One comment even said it needed to be a calm learning environment and this list didn’t fit that. Do you really believe that sugar filled kids produces a calm learning environment? Also you don’t have to require teachers to dress up, only if they volunteer to. If they volunteer they aren’t going to feel humiliated.

  16. I don’t allow birthday treats in my classroom. Instead, we have ten minutes extra recess. The typical cupcakes were so distracting I’m convinced I’m saving time.

    A lot of these are great ideas, and they get the ball rolling to be creative.

  17. Oh to have had a parent like you when I was still teaching. Before I started teaching in one school, the supply list for my grade level included a bag of skittles or M&Ms to give to students when they read a page or brought in homework. I told the other teachers no way did I want candy in my classroom and any time my students got candy from someone else I told them to take it home because you have to brush your teeth after you eat candy. Rewards have their place but feeling good about doing your best is the best reward a student can get. Well deserved praise helps motivate more than anything and a call or note home to parents help get them on board too.

  18. I am surprised this is such a problem. Where we live, the children are not allowed to share snacks. Parents are not allowed to send cupcakes or special snacks for birthday celebrations in school. We do have dine out days at local restaurants, some of which are not the healtiest, but those are optional.

  19. While I encourage reducing food snacks, as a former principal and teacher I find this list very unrealistic. Most take time away from valuable teaching time and many subject staff to humiliating circumstances. I think if you consulted with school staff you might come up with a far better list of “alternatives” that supported your goals AND the main educational goals of school!

    1. Pat, What list would you come up with? These parents including myself are outraged at what is being foisted upon their children.
      The constant sweets are NOT acceptable to so many families. Using sweets as a reward system teaches children to celebrate and comfort themselves with sweets and food. It is a very powerful psychological effect. This is how we train circus and marine animals to do tricks for our amusement. It sets up life long patterns that create other problems. Problems that many of the teachers who use sweets as a reward have themselves, such as compulsive eating. (replace sweets with the word alcohol or drugs and you get a better understanding of how this works.) Sugar does indeed have a pharmacological effect on the body. Serving sweets is also not in accordance with the vast majority of district wellness policies. Asking Schools and Districts to live up to their promises is not asking much other than to follow their own policies.

      1) Check your school dis­trict well­ness pol­icy In accor­dance with the Child Nutri­tion and WIC Reau­tho­riza­tion Act of 2004, all school dis­tricts par­tic­i­pat­ing in the fed­er­ally funded school meals pro­gram must have a writ­ten pol­icy that addresses nutri­tion and phys­i­cal activ­ity. With very lit­tle effort, I found a copy of ours on the school district’s web­site. Arm­ing your­self with the “offi­cial pol­icy” (and I sug­gest print­ing it out and hav­ing it avail­able to show school offi­cials!) will show that you’re pre­pared and that your request is in line with the district’s stated goals. In other words, you’re not some crazy anti-sugar crack­pot—you merely want the school to live up to its promise.

  20. In my daughter’s 1st grade class last year, the birthday child chose a small rock from the teacher’s assorted collection (any bag of river rocks, gemstones, etc… would work). The class sits in a circle and passes it around, each giving the birthday child a compliment or friendly wish. The teacher sent it home tied in a bit of cloth. My daughter loved this and remembered what everyone said. She keeps it on her nightstand :) I love that over the course of the year, each child gives and receives kind words!

  21. I see your point. But some of the suggestions are so time consuming for the already too busy teacher. Also, since a calm learning environment is important, some listed ideas seems counter productive.

  22. Thanks for these! I am the PTA president at our school and have been committed to eliminating junk food as prizes. These ideas are a big help. In February of this last year, we did a box tops drive and the reward was a school-wide paper wad fight in the halls. It didn’t cost anything (we used paper from the recycle bin) and everyone loved it…including the teachers!

    1. I recently discovered just how often students are receiving candy as rewards. It’s ridiculous. My twins started pre-K this year at the elementary school in which they’ll attend. I volunteer in the Kindergarten classes as well and I’m appalled at how they reward the children with candy – skittles and m&ms mainly. And, the foods they give the students are outrageous, full of sugar – honeybuns, pancakes (out of a plastic wrapper – yuck), pop-tarts, etc. etc. That’s just breakfast! Then for snack (which they don’t need), it’s anything from candy to cookies. We pack breakfast and the snack daily for our twins, so they’re not eating it, but I did learn they are being given skittles and m&ms. I DO NOT agree with giving children food of any kind as a reward. Sorry so long…I just found out about this, and I’m outraged. My husband and I have scheduled a meeting with the Principal to discuss. How can I get them to see our point of view?? It’s obviously something all the teachers do… and this is a small town…just have a feeling this will be an uphill battle, and we’re only in Pre-K!! Makes me want to home school… any advice is great appreciated!

      1. Jena,

        I found out that any school that participates in the Federal Lunch Program (which is practically ALL public Schools) have to write out and post a school wellness policy. It is very easy to search for on the District;s website. I found ours. In it they disclose their policy with junkfood. It is usually quite strict and also quite often the Principal and Teachers are unaware of the policy. Here is the advice I found today for using the policy to enforce the no sweets at school problem. Here is a very interesting part of that. “1) Check your school dis­trict well­ness pol­icy In accor­dance with the Child Nutri­tion and WIC Reau­tho­riza­tion Act of 2004, all school dis­tricts par­tic­i­pat­ing in the fed­er­ally funded school meals pro­gram must have a writ­ten pol­icy that addresses nutri­tion and phys­i­cal activ­ity. With very lit­tle effort, I found a copy of ours on the school district’s web­site. Arm­ing your­self with the “offi­cial pol­icy” (and I sug­gest print­ing it out and hav­ing it avail­able to show school offi­cials!) will show that you’re pre­pared and that your request is in line with the district’s stated goals. In other words, you’re not some crazy anti-sugar crack­pot—you merely want the school to live up to its promise.”

  23. What I want to know is why do kids have snack time. I never had snack time in school. I think that my son eats his snack and does not eat lunch. when he comes home from school he is starving. I do not remember coming home starving ever from school. Plus, I often stayed after school for club meetings and sports practice.

    1. So true!! In kindergarten, my daughter had snack at 9:30, lunch at 11, and another snack at 1:30. Add an after school snack and her dinner was wasted every night. Then I stopped sending snacks and her lunch was gone every day and she ate supper again. Even she said she didn’t need the snacks! To make it worse, there was no “approved” snack list, so most of the kids had pudding cups, Oreos, chips, etc.! It drives me crazy how society has embraced this notion that kids need constant access to snacks and drinks.

      1. I read an article recently, I’ll try to locate it and post it, that showed the health differences of a list of countries in Europe who gave their kids 45 mins to one hour for lunch. My first grader gets 15 mins! The differences talked about were how many US schools limit the time so much that the children are forced to shove things in there mouths just to fill them, and due to the the quick nature of it then are starving just hours later. Our kids are very healthy eaters but having to inhale even real food takes a toll on ones body. Where as in these European countries the children are able to sit and make their own wise choices to eat well and enjoy every bite of their food. They have no snacks just a well spent lunch time to nourish themselves.

  24. While your ideas are great, most of these can’t just be done without permission from the school. As a teacher, I can’t just decide today is movie day nor can I let my student go to another class for Specials. I like a lot of these ideas and implement many in my classroom. However, just remember, most schools don’t let teachers just make these decisions on their own. They need permission and it is hard to come by at most schools nowadays. Rigor is key and watching a movie, dressing up, and even recess are not considered rigorous at my school.

  25. Thank you so much for this list. I am the Box Tops coordinator for my school and I work in a 3rd grade classroom. I see student store full of candy and ice cream floats for Box Top winners. Thank you for the ideas. I want to do my part to make our school better.

  26. After reading this list, I realized that my elementary school did most of these things. Sure we had the occasional birthday treat, but most of the time for rewards they were non-food related. Thank you for the reminder :)

    wonder why schools have moved away from non-food times and substituted with cookies and cake. I have many fond memories growing up and they did not contain food. We need to move our schools back to this.