Bake sale law? New guidelines put the squeeze on sugary fundraisers.

The bake sale is a time-honored fundraising tradition in US schools, but school bake sales in several states are required to follow federal nutrition guidelines. Should schools be worried about fundraising, or will students find other ways around the so-called 'bake sale laws'?

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    Homemade brownies with chocolate sauce are seen on a plate. Bake sales may help schools raise money, but a federal law now interferes with selling sweets during the school day.
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Homemade brownies and chocolate chip cookies may help schools raise money, but school officials in a growing number of US  states may soon have to look elsewhere to help fund field trips and school uniforms. 

New regulations in several states now puts nutrition restrictions on baked sales and fundraisers involving high-caloric, sugary foods. It originates from the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act supported by First Lady Michelle Obama and her "Let's Move!" campaign.

In accordance with the law, the US Department of Agriculture set standards for all food and beverages sold during the school day. This affects school lunches, but also vending machines and snack carts. Additionally, states can extend the guidelines to daytime fundraisers, like bake sales. 

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The act allows states flexibility to have some fundraisers with foods that do not meet the standards, says Mark Bishop, the vice president of policy at Healthy Schools Campaign. Some states, including Georgia, Illinois, and Tennessee, have allotted a certain number of days for non-compliant bake sales, but Mr. Bishop notes that many are not allowing any exemptions. 

So according to the rules, what is allowed, and not allowed, at an in-school bake sale? A large donut with 242 calories cannot be sold , but a 4 oz. fruit cup with 100 percent juice is permitted. Light popcorn and no-calorie flavored water is fine, but a 1.6 oz. chocolate bar with 235 calories is not.

"For some districts, this will be a huge change," Julia Bauscher, president of the School Nutrition Association and director of school and community nutrition services at Jefferson County Public School in Louisville, Ky., tells the Wall Street Journal. "There's a lot of fear among school food directors that we will have to be the food police.”

Some school officials have vocalized their concern. Georgia’s State Board of Education Chair Helen Rice and State School Superintendent John Barge called the federal guidelines “an absolute overreach” of the government.

“Tough economic times have translated into fewer resources and these fundraisers allow our schools to raise a considerable amount of money for very worthwhile education programs,” they said in a collective statement last month. “While we are concerned about the obesity epidemic, limiting food and beverage fundraisers at schools and school-related events is not the solution to solving it.”

The nutrition guidelines are also a bit murky for homemade treats, given that most people do not know the exact nutrition information of  the brownies and cookies they bake at home. The schools' answer to that is to not permit homemade goods, Bishop says. A lot of schools already do not allow homemade treats, he explains, because they cannot be certain if the foods contain certain allergens like nuts. 

Still, some wonder, should there be this much concern over selling cookies and brownies? Although schools themselves may have trouble getting around loopholes in this law, students raising funds for clubs or sports teams may have an easier time making money off of sweet goods during non-school hours.

Many schools give advisers and students lists of foods that list healthier options to sell to raise money. However, when it comes to the actual bake sale, it is unlikely that there will always be someone checking in to see if a student group’s brownies meet nutrition requirements, especially in a larger school setting.

Students would not face restrictions for selling baked goods off-campus or after school, Bishop says, but that is not the point of the nutrition guidelines.

"It isn’t about policing [food,]" he says. "The issue is about creating a healthy food environment."

Schools and governments will have to wait until the fall to see the long-term effects of the federal nutrition requirements on foods sold during school hours. But don't expect federal raids on your school's bake sale anytime soon: Much of the law relies on the implementation at the local level, Bishops explains.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect distinctions between state and federal school food regulations. Individual states regulate bake sale rules, not the USDA. 

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