WASHINGTON — Don't touch my brownies!
A child nutrition bill on its way to President Barack Obama — and championed by the first lady — gives the government power to limit school bake sales and other fundraisers that health advocates say sometimes replace wholesome meals in the lunchroom.
Republicans, notably Sarah Palin, and public school organizations decry the bill as an unnecessary intrusion on a common practice often used to raise money.
"This could be a real train wreck for school districts," Lucy Gettman of the National School Boards Association said Friday, a day after the House cleared the bill. "The federal government should not be in the business of regulating this kind of activity at the local level."
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The legislation, part of first lady Michelle Obama's campaign to stem childhood obesity, provides more meals at school for needy kids, including dinner, and directs the Agriculture Department to write guidelines to make those meals healthier. The legislation would apply to all foods sold in schools during regular class hours, including in the cafeteria line, vending machines and at fundraisers.
It wouldn't apply to after-hours events or concession stands at sports events.
Public health groups pushed for the language on fundraisers, which encourages the secretary of Agriculture to allow them only if they are infrequent. The language is broad enough that a president's administration could even ban bake sales, but Secretary Tom Vilsack signaled in a letter to House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., this week that he does not intend to do that. The USDA has a year to write rules that decide how frequent is infrequent.
Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest says the bill is aimed at curbing daily or weekly bake sales or pizza fundraisers that become a regular part of kids' lunchtime routines. She says selling junk food can easily be substituted with nonfood fundraisers.
"These fundraisers are happening all the time," Wootan said. "It's a pizza sale one day, doughnuts the next... It's endless. This is really about supporting parental choice. Most parents don't want their kids to use their lunch money to buy junk food. They expect they'll use their lunch money to buy a balanced school meal."
Not all see it that way.
Palin mocked the efforts last month by bringing a plate of cookies to a school speech in Pennsylvania. Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the senior Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, said the federal government "has really gone too far" when it is deciding when to hold bake sales.
Some parents say they are perplexed by what the new rules might allow.
In Seminole, Fla., the Seminole High Warhawks Marching Band's booster club held a bake sale to help send the band's 173 members to this year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York. One of the bake sale's specialties: New York-style cheesecake, an homage to the destination they'd pursued for 10 years.
"Limiting bake sales is so narrow-minded," said Laura Shortway, whose 17-year-old daughter, Mallory, is a drummer in the band. "Having bake sales keeps these fundraisers community based, which is very appealing to the person making the purchase."
Several school districts and state education departments already have policies suggesting or enforcing limits on bake sales, both for nutritional reasons and to keep the events from competing for dollars against school cafeterias. In Connecticut, for instance, about 70 percent of the state's school districts have signed on to the state education department's voluntary guidelines encouraging healthy foods in place of high-sugar, high-fat options.
Under those rules, bake sales cannot be held on school grounds unless the items meet nutrition standards that specifically limit portion sizes, fat content, sodium and sugars. That two-ounce, low-fat granola bar? Probably OK, depending what's in it. But grandma's homemade oversized brownie with cream cheese frosting and chocolate chips inside? Probably not.
One loophole in Connecticut: The nutritional standards apply if the food is being sold at a bake sale, but not if it's being given away free, such as by a parent for a child's birthday.
"If a mom wants to send in cupcakes to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, that would not be subject to the state guidelines," said Thomas Murphy, a spokesman for the state's education department.
In New York City, a rule enacted in 2009 allows bake sales only once a month, and they must comply with nutritional standards and be part of a parent group fundraiser.
Wootan says she hopes the rules will prompt schools to try different options for fundraising.
"Schools are so used to doing the same fundraisers every year that they need a strong nudge to do something new," she says. "The most important rebuttal to all of these arguments is that schools can make money other ways — you don't have to harm kids health."
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