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The learning curve for a new elementary school parent is high. The anxiety for a health-conscious, plant-based parent is higher. Schedules, rules, and school supply lists have become the focus of my consciousness, and worries over snack time, lunch time, and school food have plagued me.

Laken, my son who turns 5 in December, started kindergarten last week and, thankfully, the transition has been a smooth one. The daily plan of packing a lunch, walking to school, greeting classmates and parents in the courtyard, lining up when the teacher blows the whistle, then waving goodbye, has solidified.

Now that the route and routine have been figured out, my calendar is filled with upcoming PTA meetings, and my name is on the list for potential class parent volunteers.

Luckily, kindergarten kids eat homemade lunches in their classrooms at their desks, so I don’t have to worry about the lunch line until next year.

Looking over the monthly meetings, numerous fundraisers, and field trips, I noticed that one Friday every month is labeled “Cupcake Friday.”

My plant-based parent’s heart shuddered. What does this mean, I wonder? Is this the first step towards my son’s dietary demise?  Shooting an email to another mom whose older children attend the same school, I wrote her, “What’s the deal with Cupcake Friday?”

My fears were that this monthly fundraiser would take place at lunch, so the kids would have free reign over buying as many cupcakes as they could scrounge, as we had when my high school held Donut Fridays., and that the school rules would dictate “store bought baked goods only – no home baked cupcakes allowed,” as some schools across the country have mandated.

My biggest passion in vegan cooking has always been baking, and I feared that even my culinary school training and my New York City Food Protection Certificate wouldn’t gain my cupcakes entrance to the cupcake table.  What would my plant-based, dairy free child do at a table dominated by store-bought, allergen filled, artificially colored cupcakes? Would he feel left out? Would I have to buy a dozen expensive store bought cupcakes from the vegan bakery in Manhattan every month?

Then, salvation appeared in the form of a reply email. “Don’t worry,” my friend wrote back. “We’re allowed to make our own cupcakes for the fundraisers.”

War is over – if you want it. The battle never really got started, but I still have concerns about these cupcake escapades.

But then I started wondering about the other children who might have food allergies and sensitivities. Do they have symptoms and diagnoses? Do their parents know they might be allergic to eggs and dairy, or even gluten in wheat? What if they have ADD or ADHD that are worsened by food colorings and preservatives, and no one knows about it? Do these kids go home after Cupcake Friday and have a food sensitivity induced meltdown? Worse, are they eating foods like this every day that are affecting their health and ability to learn and behave?

Food allergies to the “Big 8” affect approximately 5% of American children. That means out of 400 kids in my son’s school, around 20 may have allergic reactions to the most common allergens: wheat, soybeans, fish, shellfish, eggs, cow’s milk, peanuts and tree nuts.

Milk from cows is one of the most common food allergies, affecting 2 to 5 percent of American children. Symptoms include digestive problems, skin outbreaks like hives, and wheezing. Most children with asthma improve greatly when diary products are removed from their diets.

While an all-out milk allergy is less common, lactose intolerance, the inability to digest the sugar lactose found in dairy, is much more common and can affect 95 percent of Asians, 60 percent to 80 percent of African Americans and Ashkenazi Jews, 80 percent to 100 percent of American Indians, and 50 percent to 80 percent of Hispanics.

Strangely, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development has declared  “The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that population groups with high rates of lactose intolerance should not be encouraged to avoid milk and milk products.”

So even though half of the kids in this school are Hispanic and very likely to be lactose intolerant, they won’t be discouraged from avoiding milk and milk products. And when Cupcake Friday comes alone, those kids will be stepping up to a mouthful of stomach upset.

Another basic ingredient of most of these cupcakes will be wheat flour. Wheat is an amorphous food sensitivity. With symptoms ranging from depression, bloating, diarrhea, joint pain, inability to concentrate, irritability, and difficulties with mental alertness, it can be hard to pin down an allergy to wheat, gluten, or any of the relatives of wheat like spelt or kamut. The numbers of Americans who have celiac disease (an inability to digest gluten), wheat allergy and wheat sensitivity, are hard to guess, but experts believe it to be about the same staggering numbers as the lactose intolerant. An estimated 95 percent of people with any of these digestive difficulties don’t know it’s a problem for them.

Since I won’t be making tuna cupcakes, I’ll only focus on vegan, gluten-free cupcake recipes for the next 9 months. I’ll volunteer to come to the school on those Friday afternoons and take 50 cents from each kid who wants a treat. Since half of the kids at our school speak Spanish I’ll make a little sign that reads “Allergy-Free Cupcakes: no eggs, milk, soy, or wheat” in Spanish and English.

Maybe this will make a few kids or parents happy, maybe it will start a conversation about food allergies.

This recipe first appeared in my book Vegan Cooking For Dummies.

Carrot Cupcakes with Coconut Frosting

Prep time: 10 min
Cook time: 15–20 min, plus cooling.

Yield: 12 cupcakes

Carrot Cupcakes Ingredients:

  • 1 cup All-Purpose Gluten-Free flour
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup grapeseed, canola, or coconut oil
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup brown rice syrup, real maple syrup, or agave nectar
  • 1 cup grated carrot
  • 1 cup unsweetened applesauce
  • 1/4 cup plain, unsweetened rice, oat, almond, hemp, or soy milk

Easy Icing Ingredients:

  • 1 cup coconut butter, warmed over low heat until it’s easily spreadable
  • 1/2 cup brown rice syrup

Preparation:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line the muffin tins with cupcake liners.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Stir well to combine.
  3. In a medium mixing bowl, combine the vanilla extract, brown rice syrup, carrot, applesauce, milk, and oil. Whisk well to thoroughly combine.
  4. Pour half of the flour mixture into the carrot mixture and stir well to combine. Scrape the remaining flour into the carrot mixture and stir well.
  5. Spoon into the cupcake liners, leaving about 1/2 inch of space at the top of each. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.
  6. Remove the cupcakes from the pan and cool at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before icing.
  7. To make the icing, combine the coconut butter and brown rice syrup and stir well to combine. Spread over the cooled cupcakes.

Vegan Cupcakes Image Source: Gina Guillotine (via Flickr)

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