Bake Sale Ban Uproar: Just the Latest Roadblock for Healthier Schools

Published on
May 31, 2012

bake sale, tammy worth, reporting on health, school lunch, food policy, nutrition, obesityThe Massachusetts Public Health Department recently tried to ban bake sales in public schools during, right before, and immediately after classes. A public uproar ensued, with opponents claiming it would hurt fundraising efforts and reduce students' food choices. The legislature voted against the ban.

Marion Nestle, author and professor at New York University, wrote an article in The Atlantic about the bake sale debacle, noting that:

The environment of many schools is anything but conducive to good health practices. While outright bans may be seen as going too far, some kind of restriction on junk food in schools seems like a sensible adult decision, given the impact of obesity on children, families, and the health care system

In an email interview, Nestle told me that there are other ways these schools can raise money, but "this seems like the easiest and nobody wants to give it up." She said food companies are also to blame for playing the "freedom of choice" card.

The idea that kids' health is second-rate to money is what keeps cupcakes and cookies in our schools. Considering it a sin to question the school food institution is the kind of mentality that allowed "pink slime" to work its way into schools.
This smacks of just one more example of how difficult it is to change the impenetrable status quo that is our school food system. It has too often become a place where well-meaning nutritionists feel handcuffed to feed school children frozen, processed foods because they think it is all they can afford. And where high-fat, sugar-laden fast food is sold to subsidize the traditional program for children who cannot afford other meals.

Even the United States Department of Agriculture has a difficult time making progress. The department in 2011 proposed new guidelines for the school food program - the first such changes in 15 years. The regulations were not perfect, but the effort was meant to increase fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat milk served in schools.

But some these standards met a similar fate as the bake sale ban. The main complaint districts hear is that adding healthier foods is not economically viable. It is difficult to run even a nonprofit business (and that is exactly what school food programs are) when the margins are so tight. Most operate in the red and sell other foods to augment their costs.

A 2008 report by the Department of Agriculture's Food & Nutrition Service found that revenues for school food covered about 82 percent of the full costs of producing meals.

That's one excuse Kate Adamick, co-founder of the school food reform project Cook for America and author of Lunch Money, hears time and again as she travels the country to help districts change their ways.

She said people claim that healthy food costs too much; that kids won't eat it; that schools aren't equipped to cook from scratch; and that using fresh foods is dangerous.

"But I have never come across a district where there is no solution," she said. "Money is what gets them to take the first step; when they realize that it is doable, that's what finally gets them to move the ball."

Often she sees minor mistakes that create roadblocks in a system. Food service staffs, for example, typically aren't trained on how to cook fresh foods with the resources they have. Or a school makes costly changes, but overlooks ones that will save them money to create balance.

What we can learn from this is that maybe schools, parents and reporters alike are just asking the wrong questions.

We could be asking schools if they have ever cooked fresh foods there and why they stopped doing so. Here are some other questions:

• What are the true barriers to having healthier foods if cost isn't a viable issue?

• Have they ever tried other ways to raise money that don't involve selling candy or other unhealthy foods?

• Who gains from maintaining the status quo (like food vendors) and who loses? 

Related Content:

School Food Politics: What's Missing From the Pizza-as-Vegetable Reporting

Fellowship Project: School Lunch and Children's Nutrition

Is L.A. Schools' Healthy Lunch Program Really a "Flop"?

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