Invoking the Cherished Bake Sale to Undermine Healthier School Snacks



Back in November, 2010, only a few months after starting The Lunch Tray, I wrote about running my children’s elementary school Election Day bake sale.  In that post I expressed a little bit of ambivalence about selling sweets to raise money  — ambivalence that would evolve over the next four years into outright activism against junk food in schools  —  but at the time I was clearly charmed by the old-timey, innocent feel of the event.  I wrote:

. . . . the bake sale I’m running today couldn’t be more Norman Rockwell: there are flags and buntings everywhere, kids clamoring to take a turn behind the cash box, and almost all the goods are homemade.

It’s just that sort of nostalgia for the old-fashioned bake sale that’s now being cynically exploited by those seeking to undermine the new Smart Snacks in School rules.

Promulgated under the 2010 the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) and becoming effective this past July, the Smart Snacks rules greatly improve the nutritional profile of foods and drinks sold to kids during the school day in outlets like school stores, vending machines, cafeteria snack bar lines — and yes, school fundraisers.  These rules impose sensible limits on fat, calories and sodium, while requiring that school snacks be fruits, vegetables, whole-grain or dairy products, or a combination of those foods.

But right from the start, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack knew he would have potential public relations disaster on his hands if he didn’t reassure the American public that the cherished school bake sale would survive the HHFKA’s passage.  So many right wing politicians (including Sarah Palin) and conservative outlets like Fox News were erroneously claiming that the law would “ban bake sales at schools” that Vilsack felt the need to write a letter to Congress to assure the public that the USDA would “consider special exemptions for occasional school-sponsored fundraisers such as bake sales.” Nonetheless, Fox news still warned its viewers to “[s]ay good-bye to homemade brownies and Rice Krispie treats” when President Obama signed the HHFKA into law.

Fast forward to 2014 and the bake sale furor still hasn’t died down.  A few weeks after the Smart Snacks rules went into effect this summer, Secretary Vilsack again felt the need to reassure the public, writing a piece for the Huffington Post entitled “Setting the Record Straight: Healthy School Meal Rules Allow for Bake Sales.”  In that post he reminded readers that:

USDA has given states complete authority to set policies on fundraisers and bake sales that work for them. States are free to allow fundraisers and bake sales featuring foods and beverages that don’t meet the new standards during the school day if they choose. They, not USDA, are responsible for determining the number and the frequency of these events each year.

But granting this freedom to states that are hostile to federal regulation puts the Smart Snacks rules at risk. For example, Georgia’s Board of Education, claiming that the rules are an “absolute overreach of the federal government,” voted 9-1 this summer to allow Georgia schools to hold 30 junk food fundraisers a year, each lasting up to three days.  This means that, despite the Smart Snacks rules, any type of junk food may sold to Georgia school kids for fully one-half of the school year.  And at the time of the vote, Dr. John Barge, the state’s schools superintendent, again invoked the cherished “bake sale” when speaking to the press:

 “We don’t have enough teachers in our classrooms and now we are expected to hire some type of food police to monitor, whether we are having bake sales or not. That is just asinine.”

But perhaps no one has exploited the symbolism of the bake sale more effectively than Texas Republican Congressman Ted Poe, who yesterday announced his introduction of H.R. 5417, i.e., “the Bringing Awareness and Knowledge to Exempt Schools Against Legislative Encroachment Act,” or, the BAKE SALE Act. According to Poe, this legislation, if passed, would “prohibit any funds from being used to implement USDA’s new, unrealistic rule for school fundraisers and bake sales.” And in an email to supporters announcing the BAKE SALE bill, Poe raised the specter of the federal government reaching right into the kitchens of brownie-baking moms:

In order to comply with the new rule, parents across the country will have to figure out the calorie, sugar, sodium, and fat count for the goods they prepare for a school bake sale.

But now let’s ask ourselves why the Smart Snacks rules were drafted to regulate school fundraisers in the first place. Was it because a few times each year, parents were setting up tables of homemade Toll House cookies and muffins to raise a little money for the school dance or to send the band to Disneyland?  Or was it because the trade in highly processed, competitive junk food on school campuses was brisk, profitable, and often took place on a daily basis?

A few examples from my own district, Houston ISD, might be instructive.

Here in HISD, for years it has been common practice for high school PTAs, student groups and sports teams to set up fundraising tables at lunch—every single school day—to sell entrees from local restaurants and fast food chains, everything from pizza to doughnuts to Chinese food.  These veritable “food courts” of junk food have proven so lucrative that many principals not only turn a blind eye to them, they are rarely deterred even when our state (which used to have its own competitive food rules) issued hefty fines after audits of school campuses.  The money flowed in so fast from junk food sales—literally hundreds of thousands of dollars, collectively—that principals often simply regarded those fines as the cost of doing business.

Does that sound like a quaint “bake sale” to you?

Or let’s talk about the school nurse with whom I served on HISD’s School Health Advisory Council several years ago, before Texas’s draconian education budget cuts eliminated his nursing position.  At this nurse’s particular elementary school, the student population was overwhelmingly Hispanic (an ethnic group predisposed to diet-related diseases) and he told me how he routinely examined the necks of those small children and found the tell-tale dark stripe on their skin that’s the first sign of Type 2 diabetes.  But the principal of that school, faced with the same state budget cuts that would result in the nurse’s dismissal, was so pressed for funds that he egged his students on to buy and sell chocolate bars from each other each week, holding out the allure of a “free dress” pass or homework pass for kids who made their sales quota.

Is there anything quaint about that story?

Ultimately, what’s shocking to me is that the adults so passionately fighting to undermine the Smart Snacks rules are making no secret about why they’re doing it.  It’s all about the money.

For example, here in HISD, I was dismayed when a school board member who is otherwise committed to student health expressed discomfort at the idea of banning junk food sales at his/her own child’s high school because the money from such sales was so significant.  When Georgia passed its 30-fundraisers-a-year exemption, the school board chairperson and superintendent issued a joint statement which read:

These fundraisers allow our schools to raise a considerable amount of money for very worthwhile education programs. . .

And yesterday in his email, Congressman Poe wrote that if the Smart Snacks rules are not defunded:

Bake sales and other food-based school fundraisers will be regulated to extinction, leaving schools without funds for certain school programs, field trips, athletic competitions and other activities.

What’s stunning here is the short-term thinking so vividly on display.

In junk-food-fundraiser-happy Georgia, the state ranks 35th in per-student spending, 35% of Georgia school kids are overweight or obese, and obesity is currently costing that state an estimated $2.4 billion annually.  Here in Texas, we rank a dismal 46th place in per-student spending, our high schoolers are among the most obese in the nation, and, by one estimate, obesity will cost Texas employers a stunning $30 billion a year by 2036.  Yet in 2013, Texas state lawmakers passed a law intended to protect daily high school junk food fundraising from the reach of the HHFKA.  But wouldn’t it make more sense to redirect a tiny fraction of the billions of dollars that will be spent on obesity-related healthcare toward school funding, which would eliminate schools’ dependence on the junk food fundraising that contributes to obesity?

As was the case in Georgia’s so-called “bake sale showdown” this battle tends to be framed as “a decision that weigh[s] federal school nutrition regulations against local districts’ efforts to raise funds,” but let’s be utterly clear about what’s really going on here:  it is a decision that weighs student health against local districts’ efforts to raise funds.  And the only reason why that trade-off is palatable for so many adults is because the most serious health consequences of a junk-food-rich diet generally won’t manifest themselves until long after kids graduate from the schools they helped fund with their junk food purchases.

And, at that point, they’re conveniently going to be somebody else’s problem.

This post originally appeared on The Lunch Tray.

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