Is the tradition of school bake sales nearing an end?
At a time when school communities are forced to increase fundraising efforts amid tighter budgets, one hugely popular method of raising money for the basketball team or math club is at a crossroads -- with the national fight against childhood obesity.
In Maryland's Montgomery County, bake sales are not permitted during the day and school officials keep an ear to the ground to make sure that there's no underground sales of sweets, Bloomberg Businessweek reports.
"If a bake sale is going on, it's reported to administration and it's taken care of," Marla Caplon of the county's food and nutrition services told Businessweek. "You can't sell Girl Scout cookies, candy, cakes, any of that stuff."
Montgomery County is one of a growing number of school districts in the country -- ranging from those in California to those in New York -- that have gradually started to ban bake sales in the name of student nutrition as well as to keep food spending in school cafeterias. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 percent of all children in the United States are considered obese -- triple that of the last generation.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 not only regulates school lunches and breakfasts, but also outlines mandates for the USDA to determine nutrition standards for "competitive foods," or other food items sold during the school day.
Nearly three-quarters of Connecticut's school districts have signed on to the state education department's healthy foods guidelines, which ban school bake sales that do not meet specific nutrition standards that limit portion sizes, fat, sodium and sugars. The rules, however, don't apply if sweets are being handed out for free, like for a student's birthday, the Associated Press reports.
In New York City, bake sales are permitted only once a month or weekdays after 6 p.m., and must be a part of a parent group fundraiser while also complying with nutritional standards, according to The New York Times. During school hours, only fresh fruits and vegetables and any of 27 approved packaged products that meet city Health Department guidelines on calories, fat, sugar and salt can be sold. That also means that items like Pop Tarts are approved for sale, whereas homemade oatmeal cookies or banana bread are not.
These rules challenge a lot of heavy fundraising opportunities. Bloomberg Businessweek's Stephanie Armour tells David Green of NPR's Morning Edition about a mom in New York City who helped raise $50,000 through school bake sales. Some parents also argue that bake sale profits often go toward activities athletic groups that help keep kids active, fit and healthy. Students worry that they'll lose funding for their favorite activities and scholarships.
To appease the nutrition-versus-money-and-tradition dispute, new child nutrition guidelines for schools -- championed by first lady Michelle Obama -- are expected to be released this year. The new rules give the government authority to limit bake sales and fundraisers that supporters argue sometimes take the place of more nutritious and regular cafeteria meals.
The legislation calls for more, and healthier, school meals for needy students, and applies to all food sold during school hours -- whether in the cafeteria, in vending machines or in fundraisers. After-hours events and sports concessions are exempt.
Food fundraisers are only allowed if they are approved by the school and "infrequent," but the USDA has yet to determine what "infrequent" means.
The Young Women's Leadership School of Astoria, for example, has completely banned bake sales and is on its way to going sugar-free, by switching chocolate milk for water and using agave and honey instead of sugar as first steps, the New York Daily News reports.
A New York Times report last December revealed the trials that face figures like Michelle Obama and chef and media personality Jamie Oliver, who actively work to fight childhood obesity by promoting healthy school lunches and nutritional education. Those efforts are further thwarted by lenient regulations, as Congress supported the final version of a spending bill last November that would allow tomato paste on pizzas to continue to be counted as a vegetable and blocks efforts to limit the use of potatoes in school cafeterias.
On Jimmy Kimmel Live that same month, Oliver declared that "the food companies of America own you," adding that "These moron frozen food companies -- pizza industry, french-fry industry -- have basically bought, bribed, bullied Congress, who have completely let everyone down, into basically making it okay to feed [students] french fries every day."
The Nov. 17 move by Congress was seen as a victory for those food manufacturers. American Frozen Food Institute spokesperson Corey Henry told Reuters that the overturned standards would have forced food producers to "change their products in a way that would make them unpalatable to students."
Still, some schools -- like several in California -- have taken the matter into their own hands, and have found ways to profit from those efforts. Umpteen school districts have taken part in a decade-long initiative, supported by a philanthropic organization, that provides schools with equipments and chefs who teach cafeteria workers to cook from scratch and produce fresh meals.
A report by the CDC last fall revealed that more than a third of high school students were eating vegetables less than once a day -- "considerably below" recommended levels of intake for a healthy lifestyle that supports weight management and could reduce risks for chronic diseases and some cancers.
But even as districts like Montgomery County crack down on bake sales, junk foods are still prevalent. Scott Hensley writes for NPR:
Early this year I attended a "Doughnuts with Dads" breakfast that featured giant, sugary doughnuts as big as my hand. And a few months later my wife got her fill at "Muffins with Moms." Kids and their parents chowed down while bonding over art projects. Good times and empty calories were enjoyed by all.
At my house anyway, our weights were unaffected by the caloric benders.