Politics & Policy

Michelle Obama’s War on Bake Sales Leaves School Programs Scrambling

School nutritional standards will now affect on-campus fundraisers.

A school board president in Wisconsin has decided to opt out of a program that provides federal funding for school meals because of new federal guidelines that are restricting what foods can be served in schools, both in and out of the cafeteria.

“These guidelines seemed to be overly onerous; they weren’t meeting our community standard,” Rick Petfalski of the Muskego-Norway School District tells National Review. “These are decisions that are best made at the local level.”

Guidelines implemented two years ago that determined what could be served in school cafeterias had already led students to cut back on the number of meals they were buying, and students were leaving the lunchroom hungry. But new guidelines that would have taken effect on July 1 pushed the federal control even further. The regulations  “stepped out of the lunch room and into bake sales and concessions,” he explained.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and the Let’s Move! campaign, both of which are championed by First Lady Michelle Obama, were launched to reduce childhood obesity through federal regulation. According to The Wall Street Journal, the law overhauled nutrition standards that affect more than 30 million children.

The nutrition standards, which cover schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program, do not just determine which foods can be served for lunch in the cafeteria. As of July 1, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Smart Snacks standard  will also determine nutritional standards for all foods and beverages sold during the school day in vending machines and even student bake sales or fundraisers.

Snacks must contain 200 calories, of which no more than 35 percent can come from fat or sugar. Sodium is capped at 230 milligrams. Student groups hoping to fundraise by selling cupcakes will now have to try to convince their fellow classmates to spend their money on fruit cups and granola bars.

The regulations leave some discretion up to the states, which decide how many daytime fundraisers per year can be exempted from the nutrition standards, but the guidelines encourage states to keep these unlawful bake sales “infrequent.” Tennessee, for example, allows schools to sell food items that do not follow the requirements for 30 days each year.

David Sevier, deputy executive director of the Tennessee Board of Education, thinks that 30 days “is a pretty generous number.”

“I would be shocked if most schools were even getting close to that number,” he tells National Review.

But 32 states have decided that they will allow no exemptions to the federal requirements, according to a draft report from the School Nutrition Association. The Journal reports that some schools have already banned students from setting up tables to sell Girl Scout Cookies.

Wisconsin has decided that schools can disobey the requirements twice a year.

Petfalski explained that had his school district continued to receive federal funding,  the swim team, which has its meets right after school, wouldn’t have been able to serve hot dogs.  “Essentially they’re coming in and telling the swimming club that you need to find a new way of fundraising,” he said.


Petfalski also said the federal guidelines were ridiculous because of their “one-size-fits-all” nature, comparing it to a federal guideline that would make all shoes a size 10. He noted that the guidelines imply that a 225-pound linebacker needs the same calorie intake as a 110-pound freshman girl.

Adam Drummond, the principal of an elementary school in Indiana, is much more supportive of the regulations. He explains to National Review that in some cases, students eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner provided by federal funding.

“It doesn’t bother me that there are specific processes in place because I think its important for the kids,” he says.

While Drummond concedes that “all or nothing laws” can create a lot of angst and uncertainty, he says the exemptions provide states the ability to “work within the confines of those laws.”

The Hunger-Free Kids Act also grants states the ability to impose fines on schools that do not abide by the Smart Snacks standards. The Journal noted that a high school in Utah was fined over $15,000 when the Utah Department of Education found during an on-site visit that the school was selling snacks and carbonated beverages near the school cafeteria during meal time, which is prohibited by federal requirements. The fine was later reduced to $1,297.

In the face of these fines, schools are figuring out how to monitor food sales on campus. Homemade goods pose a particular challenge, as it is difficult to determine their nutritional content. As a result, some schools have prohibited students from selling any homemade food. Instead they must sell processed items with available nutritional information.

“I don’t think people 800 miles away should be telling us how to feed our children,” Petfalski says. “We’re adults. We know what’s best for our students better than some unelected bureaucrat.”

He adds, “It’s big brother gone amok.”

— Molly Wharton is an intern at National Review.

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