Bake sale ban in Massachusetts sparks outcries over 'food police'

A cookie crackdown? A brownie ban? The time-honored bake sale falls under a new Massachusetts law that limits students' access to junk food before and after school. Aim is to fight obesity, but critics decry a nanny state of 'food police.'

A bake-sale ban in Massachusetts schools, designed to combat youth obesity, has spawned a sort of nationwide food fight.

The crackdown on cookies is being met with a widespread criticism from bloggers, parents, and students who see it as a case of government gone too far. Turning brownies into contraband, they say, is the latest sign of a burgeoning "nanny state" that doesn't know its proper limits.

To blogger Bryan Preston, the move in Massachusetts is nothing less than a maker of national decline.

"It’s over. The whole American experiment. Over. Done," he wrote Monday on the PJ Media website. "The place where a stamp tax started a full blown revolution has now banned local school groups from selling tasty cakes to make a quick buck. Parents are angry, but no one has assembled the tar and feathers appropriate to the occasion. They probably banned tar for having too many calories."

Although it's a Massachusetts policy that has drawn the sudden attention, the issue of school food guidelines is national. It's under review by everyone from local school boards to the US Agriculture Department. As public officials consider ways to improve nutrition and reduce childhood obesity, rules and norms are changing in sometimes controversial ways.

In Massachusetts, a state law that becomes effective in August will limit access to junk food (including bake sale treats) at schools from a half-hour before the school day until a half-hour after it ends, according to local news reports this week. New guidelines from the state Department of Public Health go further, encouraging schools to apply the nutrition standards at all times.

“We’re at a place in Massachusetts where one-third of our kids in schools are either overweight or obese,” the department's medical director, Lauren Smith, said, according to The Patriot Ledger newspaper. The goal is to "create an environment in schools where kids have an opportunity to make choices among healthy options."

Many Americans, in the Bay State and elswhere, sympathize with the aim of improving nutrition. At the same time, many see bake sales as a tried-and-true fundraising vehicle that plays little role in the obesity problem.

Among Boston-area users of Twitter, the buzz on the policy is largely negative. "Banning bake sales to curb obesity? Such an obvious fail," wrote @SoniaSu_. 

Many critics of the law argue that obesity has more to do with lack of exercise than with food choices. Some bloggers, moreover, see the restrictions as part of a broader trend toward micromanaging children's lives.  

"Our kids don’t play outside as much as we did, they can’t go trick-or-treating without us dressing up and tagging along, and we’ve orchestrated their every waking moment so that they’re never alone or off-task," Katherine Ozment wrote on Boston Magazine's Boston Daily site. "Couldn’t we let them have the simple pleasure of selecting a sweet, homemade morsel at a school bake sale a couple times a year, then savoring each bite – as they may one day wish we’d let them savor childhood?"

Schools in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, and Texas have crafted regulations designed to require bake sale items to be wholesome, according to a Bloomberg Businessweek report earlier this month. 

"To end the confusion," Stephanie Armour wrote in the article, "the federal government is expected to weigh in this year with its own national school nutrition standards for food sold outside cafeterias. Yet that’s only led to more questions. The Agriculture Department says the new rules will allow infrequent bake sales during school hours but hasn’t said what infrequent means."

The to-and-fro over nutrition isn't a new feature in America's public policy arena. 

Back in 2005, the Texas legislature passed a so-called "Safe Cupcake amendment" to ensure that tighter school standards wouldn't bar parents from occasionally sharing treats such as cupcakes at school.

Some good news is that recent studies suggest that childhood obesity rates may be leveling off or even starting to decline.

But with the problem still viewed as a major health concern for the nation, it's safe to guess that debates over food policy – and "food police" – won't end any time soon.

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