down with bake sales?

New rules may force schools to look at fundraising through a healthier lens

PHOTO: Michelle Bushel
Kindergarten students participate in the fun run at Lowry Elementary School in Denver last year.

When Allison Howe’s son started preschool in the Morgan County School District two years ago, her stomach churned when she learned about the school’s chief fundraising tool: frozen pie.

For Howe, a mother of three and healthy living blogger, it presented an ethical dilemma. She felt the pies were unhealthy and overpriced and she knew her northeastern Colorado region had the highest rate of child obesity in the state. At the same time, she knew that kids who sold the most earned prizes and special recognition. Plus, the fund-raiser consistently brought in $10,000 a year for the district-run Sherman Early Childhood Center.

“It felt icky,” she said.

Fast forward to this fall. With the help of a supportive principal, Sherman’s pie fund-raiser is gone in favor of catalog sales and an online donation platform. That said, Howe is not exactly waving a victory flag. She’s still frustrated by the resistance from some parents and staff to what she calls “overtly healthy” fundraisers like jogathons. She also believes the district lacks a cohesive approach to remaking the fund-raising landscape around healthier options.

But for Howe and other wellness advocates across Colorado, things may get a bit easier this year with the implementation of new federal rules that put stricter limits on some school fund-raisers. While the “Smart Snacks in Schools” rules won’t ban the sale of cookie dough, frozen pizza or pie, which are generally meant for consumption outside of school, they could curtail in-school bake sales and candy sales, and eliminate products like chips and Gatorade from school stores.

Nutrient standards for snack items under Smart Snacks in Schools

    • Maximum calories: Up to 200
    • Maximum sodium: Up to 230 mg
    • Total fat: Up to 35% of calories
    • Saturated fat: Less than 10 percent of calories
    • Trans fat: 0 grams
    • Maximum sugar: Up to 35% of weight from total sugars
*Foods exempt from the rules include fresh fruit and vegetables, certain canned fruits and vegetables, low-fat cheese, nuts, seeds, nut and seed butters, dried fruit with no added sweeteners, and sugar-free chewing gum.

The Smart Snacks rules, which took effect July 1, establish limits on calories, sodium, fat and sugar in “competitive” foods sold at schools. In addition to food-based fundraisers that occur on campus during school hours, the rules apply to vending machine products and a la carte items sold in the cafeteria line.

Perhaps more important than the nutritional nitty gritty of the new rules, is the overarching message that school-sanctioned junk food–even if it’s lucrative for student council or PTA- is wearing out its welcome. Emily Jacobs, wellness coordinator for the Adams 50 school district, said she hopes the new rules will help build awareness about healthy fundraising options.

“I think that it’s something that’s been off the radar and is slowly creeping up and getting more attention,” she said. “Each year, as we get one or two people on board…the needle will move a little more in that direction.

Ch- ch- changes

At many schools, the concept of  non-food fund-raisers is nothing new. Some schools have been sponsoring walkathons, fun runs, plant sales, coupon book sales, car washes and auctions for years. But food fundraisers remain popular, and the desire for tried-and-true revenue streams can make them hard to shake. That’s part of what made the pies so appealing in Fort Morgan, said Howe.

“It’s not that teachers care about the actual product, it’s more the consistent funding every year,” she said.

Jacobs found the same thing when she worked in the Adams 14 school district several years ago and questioned the wisdom of annual candy bar sales.

“I was told right off the bat, ‘Don’t touch our fund-raisers,’” she said. “One principal said, ‘We make $20,000 off these chocolate bars…That funds our books. We literally need these.’”

Some school leaders believe the trick is a gradual weaning so that other kinds of fund-raisers have time to prove their worth. At Putnam Elementary School in Fort Collins, a candy bar fund-raiser has routinely brought in $4,000-$5,000 a year, said Melissa Rivera, the school’s child nutrition manager and wellness leader. But last year, Rivera and the Parent-Teacher Organization decided to add a jogathon during the school’s annual field day

It didn’t raise a lot of money—a modest $1,144, but it was a fun community-building event that organizers plan to continue. Meanwhile, chocolate bars will be phased out of the school’s fund-raising mix.

Over the next three years, Rivera said, “That’s the one we’re trying to kick out.”

Exceptions to the rule

Even with the new Smart Snack rules, Colorado schools will still have some leeway to sponsor occasional in-school candy sales or bake sales. That’s because every state is allowed to set the number of “exempt” fund-raisers that each school building can have annually. In Colorado, that number is three, though the maximum duration of those fund-raisers isn’t specified.

About 30 states chose to give schools no exemptions, while a few grant so many or give so much flexibility it seems the rules hardly apply. For example, Georgia and Tennessee allow 30 exemptions per building and Wisconsin allows two exemptions per student organization per year.

Amanda Mercer, a program specialist with the Office of School Nutrition at the Colorado Department of Education, said when districts in the state were surveyed about the number of exemptions to offer, most landed in the zero to five range. Some expressed concerns about having to decide which school groups would get to sponsor an exempt fundraiser.

The issue could be particularly tricky at the high school level where between sports teams, student clubs and parent-teacher groups, there might be scores of fundraisers each year. Take Weld County District 6, for example. Last year, 64 groups at the district’s three high schools ran 132 fundraisers, with per-school numbers ranging from 39 to 53.

Not surprisingly, the process for monitoring fundraisers and ensuring compliance with Smart Snacks rules will vary by district. In Weld 6, the Nutrition Services Department will begin assisting the Office of Academic Achievement with the process this year, flagging fundraisers that don’t comply with the federal nutrition requirements. The mechanism for deciding who will get to run exempt fundraisers is still unclear because the issue hasn’t arisen yet, said Jeremy West, the district’s nutrition service director.

CDE officials plan to solicit feedback from district officials later in the school year about the new rules.

“We plan to…assess how this has impacted schools to see if we’re going to continue with the three exemptions next year or revise that,” said Mercer.

Moving the needle

While talk of Smart Snacks rules has been moving through school food service circles for months, many educators and parents are just beginning to hear about them. West said when he covered the topic with district principals this summer, they were apprehensive. To some, it felt like the sky was falling.

“It’s going to make our sponsors of our clubs a little more creative,” he said.

It may also require persistence and finesse. Some advocates of healthy fundraisers have discovered reluctance to try family-inclusive events like jogathons because of concerns that it puts extra stress on struggling parents working multiple jobs. Similarly, there’s a sense that  families who are contributing in any way might stop if organizers rock the fund-raising boat.

“Let’s not give our parents more barriers,” is the message Jacobs sometimes hears.

For her part, Howe plans to continue pushing for healthy fund-raisers though she knows it will take time.

“It’s all about managing transitions,” she said. “It’s a lot of PR work.”

A training being developed by the non-profit RMC Health may help. Focused around healthy fundraisers, celebrations and rewards in schools, the training is set launch in early 2015 with 23 districts that have been part of the “Healthy Schools, Successful Students” grant program.

Baseball players at Greeley West High School shucked corn on a recent afternoon as part of the team's fundraising effort.
Baseball players from Greeley West High School shucked corn on a recent afternoon as part of the team’s fundraising effort.

Even with the new rules, some school groups won’t have to change much about their fundraising repertoire. Take the baseball team at Greeley West High School. On a recent afternoon, more than a dozen coaches, players and parents shucked 1,800 ears of corn in the district’s central production kitchen as part of an annual fundraising effort that nets $400 over two days. It will help pay for the team’s annual spring break trip to California.

Shucking the corn that will end up in school lunches during the fall is an opportunity West began offering to various teams and clubs five years ago when he realized it would be cheaper to do the work in-house than pay the local farmer to do it.

In addition to corn-shucking, Coach Brian Holmes said his team will sell Qdoba cards, run the concession stand at a high school football game, and work with a local Buick dealership to get people to test drive cars. In the past, the team cleaned out ditches in a local subdivision.

“I like kids to do fundraisers that involve them working for their money. I think they appreciate it more,” he said.

Some schools, like Lowry Elementary in Denver, have recently turned toward active fundraisers, but it wasn’t because of Smart Snacks rules. Instead, parent organizers decided to switch from catalog and magazine-type sales to a fun run last fall with the hopes that it would be enjoyable, healthy and allow every child to participate.

As for fundraising side of things, parent April Archer, co-chair of the school wellness team, said the idea was, “Let’s ask people to contribute to our school–not in exchange for anything–and see what happens.”

What happened was an event with almost no overhead and a $16,000 return.

“It wasn’t like we had elaborate tents and banners and decorations…It was all about getting kids running, dancing, skipping and jumping,… getting people involved and having a lot of fun,” she said.

Mission accomplished.

Unintended consequences

When Denver stopped lunch-shaming, debt from unpaid meals skyrocketed

PHOTO: David Buffington | Getty Images

After the Denver schools chief made a high-profile announcement last August guaranteeing a full meal to students whether or not they had the money to pay, many advocates cheered the end of so-called “lunch-shaming” in the 92,000-student district.

Then came an unpleasant surprise: Debt from unpaid lunches soared, rising to $356,000 from $13,000 the year before.

Denver’s exploding meal debt — amounting to roughly 900 unpaid lunches every school day of the year — illustrates the balancing act districts nationwide face amid growing public support for policies prohibiting lunch-shaming. Such shaming often involves giving students who can’t pay small, alternative meals, putting stickers or stamps on them to remind their parents to pay, or even throwing out their meals.

In the last couple years, a growing number of districts nationwide have established policies to curb lunch-shaming. Some states, including New York, Iowa, and New Mexico, have passed statewide legislation with the same goals. The idea behind such measures is to free students from the burden of debt they have no power to pay and ensure they don’t go hungry at school. But with school districts obligated to pay for the meals, food service leaders are often left scrambling to cover mounting costs.

The school lunch debt is one reason Denver district officials quietly introduced snacks such as Doritos and Rice Krispies Treats in elementary school cafeteria lines late this past winter. The new additions, seen as unhealthy by some parents, helped generate around $41,000 in new revenue for the nutrition services department.

Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association, said she hasn’t yet heard of another district with a debt increase the size of Denver’s following the introduction of a lunch-shaming prevention policy. But she said it’s an issue the group, which represents school food service employees, plans to watch closely.

“In many districts, allowing all kids to automatically get a free meal …. can turn into a real financial challenge for the program,” she said, noting that it can take away the incentive for parents to fill out the free and reduced-price meal application.

Nearly one-third of the district’s lunch debt last year came from families who were eligible for free or reduced-price meals, but signed up part-way into the school year, after their children had already received free school lunches. The federal government covers lunch costs for students eligible for free lunches and part of the cost for students who qualify for reduced-price lunches. For elementary school students in Colorado (and starting next year for middle-schoolers), the state covers the remaining cost of reduced-price lunches.

Another 68 percent of Denver families with unpaid meal debt don’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Still, district officials said it’s impossible to determine how many of those families would qualify for subsidized lunches if they applied, how many struggle financially but just miss the cut-off for eligibility, and how many can afford to pay for school lunches but choose not to.

Theresa Peña, regional coordinator for outreach and engagement in Denver’s nutrition services department, supports the district’s new lunch-shaming prevention policy, which ended the practice of giving students with lunch debt cheese sandwiches or graham crackers and milk.

Still, district officials didn’t expect the ballooning lunch debt, which at one point was projected to hit a half-million dollars, she said.

Peña said the district is stepping up efforts to get every family to fill out the free- and reduced-price meal application for next year — an extra challenge in the current political climate in which some immigrant families fear leaving a paper trail.

Last year, in addition to adding new revenue-generating snacks in elementary schools, the district tried to recoup the debt by making weekly robocalls to parents, working with principals to do outreach to families, and in some cases sending letters home with students.

“We made a pretty hard push,” Peña said. “It did make an impact, but not as great an impact as we had hoped.”

A national problem

Most districts nationwide accrue some debt for unpaid meals.

A 2016 survey by the School Nutrition Association found that three-quarters of school districts rack up unpaid meal debt, up slightly from 71 percent two years before.

In Denver, the amount of lunch debt ranges widely by school, with some accruing less than $50 and others accruing thousands. Omar D. Blair Charter School had the highest lunch debt among Denver schools last year at $11,500. Meanwhile, Florida Pitt Waller, Joe Shoemaker Elementary, Thomas Jefferson High School, and Cheltenham Elementary all reported lunch debts between $2,500 and $5,000.

At Shoemaker, where two-thirds of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, Kitchen Manager Chris Juarez said he believes much of the school’s $4,000 in lunch debt came from families who would have qualified for subsidized lunches but didn’t apply. Sometimes, he said, families don’t realize they have to re-submit their application each year; this fall, he plans to meet with returning families — in addition to new families — to emphasize that fact.

Other parents don’t realize they have to add to the form if a related child joins their household, he said. And language barriers may still be a problem, even though the form is available in many languages. In addition, some may worry that filling out the form means their immigration status can be tracked. A 2017 Denver school board resolution specified that the district does not collect or maintain any information on students’ immigration status.

Juarez suspects only a small percentage of Shoemaker families can afford to pay for their children’s lunches, but choose not to.

Shoemaker Principal Christine Fleming, said her top priority is making sure kids get to eat lunch, no matter what. She sees non-payment as a “parent issue,” and said, “I don’t want 5-, 6-, 7- year olds to carry that burden.”

Fleming said she’s always reserved some money in a special “principal’s account” to cover the cost of unpaid lunches, including in 2017–18, when she set aside a few hundred dollars.

Previously, that practice was common across the district, Peña said, but once the lunch-shaming policy took effect, “a lot of them said, ‘Zero out my principal account. I’m not going to do that anymore.’”

In 2016–17, when the district’s lunch debt was just $13,000, an online fundraising campaign and a contribution from a private donor covered the outstanding balance. But not this year.

A district grant of $100,000 paid off lunch debt from students who were eventually eligible for free or reduced-price lunch last school year but whose parents may not have signed up right away. Peña said the district has not finalized how the remaining $256,000 will be paid, and has until June 30 to make a decision.

Is it junk food?

Before this year, elementary schools in Denver sold some snacks — officially called a la carte items — in their cafeterias. These included turkey sticks, granola bars, popcorn, string cheese, and yogurt.

Peña said the district decided to add more a la carte items in February, a few months after district food service supervisors visited nearby districts, including Jeffco and Cherry Creek, and learned that “a la carte sales were a big deal” there.

The additions include more than a half-dozen kinds of chips, Rice Krispies Treats, gummy fruit snacks, and pistachios. All of the items — some of which are slightly reformulated versions of the same products sold on grocery store shelves — adhere to federal rules governing school snacks. Parents were not informed of the new snack offerings when they were introduced.

Susan Scovell, who has two children at Bradley International School in southeast Denver and works part-time as a personal chef, said of the new snacks, “It’s pretty much total junk food.”

She got wind of them when her second-grade daughter began mentioning that friends routinely bought Doritos and Cheetos at lunch time.

“It took me months to figure out this was going on,” she said. “Most parents really had no idea.”

Scovell said the new snacks stand in stark contrast to the district’s efforts to emphasize scratch cooking and other kinds of healthy eating initiatives, such as the week-long fruit- and vegetable-tasting event at Bradley this spring.

Peña, who said the district plans to communicate better about the snack options this coming year, said parents can prevent their children from buying certain snacks. To do so, they need to contact the school’s kitchen manager and request that a note be added to the student’s school meal account citing the restriction. She conceded that the process may not be obvious or easy for all parents, and said the department will look to address that.

Peña also said that principals or kitchen managers have the option to limit the sale of a la carte snacks at their schools. For example, they can choose not to sell certain items, or restrict the sale of a la carte items to the last 15 minutes of the lunch period or to certain days of the week.

Denver is hardly unique in offering a la carte snacks at elementary schools.

Other large Colorado districts, including Douglas County, Jeffco, and Cherry Creek, also offer such items to grade school students. All three districts allow parents to limit or block their children’s snack purchases.

Carol Muller, state director of Colorado Action for Healthy Kids, which promotes nutrition and exercise initiatives in schools, said one of the top concerns she hears from parents across Colorado is about a la carte snacks. At the same time, she understands the financial pressures school cafeterias are under.

“It’s a really tough issue for everyone involved, including us,” she said. “We certainly support food service staff. We don’t want to add a bigger burden to them, but on the other hand, as a parent, I don’t find all the snacks acceptable either.”

survey says

More bullying reported at New York City schools, study shows

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

More New York City students say there is bullying in their schools, a report released Monday showed. The findings also revealed that many schools reporting the greatest number of violent incidents on campus have no social workers on staff.

The report was commissioned by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Stringer also released an audit of how school safety matters are recorded, and concluded that the education department should provide more oversight and streamline incident reporting rules.

“The audit found clear breakdowns in communication in the reporting and tracking of incidents and actions taken,” according to a press release from Stringer’s office.

The education department disputed some of the comptroller’s findings, and in a written statement, spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote: “We have detailed protocols in place to ensure allegations of bullying are immediately reported, investigated and addressed, and are investing in both anti-bullying initiatives and mental health supports.”

But the pair of reports raises scrutiny of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s school discipline reforms, which favor  “restorative” practices that emphasize mediation over punishment, and make it harder to suspend students.

Advocates of the de Blasio reforms say the shift is necessary because black and Hispanic students are more likely to be arrested or disciplined at school. Research has shown such disciplinary action can lead to higher dropout rates. Critics of the reforms, meanwhile, say the changes have created more chaotic schools.

The findings are also likely to add to a chorus of parents and elected officials who say more emotional supports are needed for the city’s most vulnerable students. Students who experience a mental health crisis during the school day may be handcuffed and shuttled to hospitals. The city’s latest budget, which was approved last week, includes an additional $2 million to hire social workers and guidance counselors in schools that currently don’t have any.

Here are some highlights from the reports.

More students report there is bullying in their schools — but the data comes with a catch.

Last year, the education department’s annual survey showed that 82 percent of students said their peers “harass, bully, or intimidate others in school.” That’s up year over year, and up significantly from 65 percent of students in 2012, which was the lowest rate recorded since at least 2010. (De Blasio’s discipline reforms started to take effect around 2015.)

A note about these numbers: Prior to 2017, the survey asked whether students harass, bully or intimidate other students none, some, most, or all of the time. The most recent survey responses were slightly different: none of the time, rarely, some of the time, or most of the time — a change that may have artificially inflated the bullying numbers.

That’s enough to render the survey data unreliable said Max Eden, a researcher who has studied school climate for the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute — a critic of the mayor’s discipline reforms. Still, taken with other findings, it’s reasonable to think that bullying is on the rise at city schools, he said.

Among the other evidence: A first-of-its-kind report, released this month under a new city law, that showed substantiated bullying incidents are on track to increase this year.

Schools that log the most violent incidents often lack mental health supports.

Guidance counselors and social workers are key when it comes to creating safe schools because they can help address the root cause of violent or troublesome behavior, advocates who want more mental health supports say.

But many of the city’s neediest schools go without that help.

Of the schools reporting the most violent incidents on campus, 36 percent lack a full-time social worker, the comptroller found. On campuses where there are social workers, caseloads are a staggering 700 to one. That far exceeds the recommended ratio from the National Association of Social Workers of 250 general education students per social worker — and it’s higher than the citywide average of 612 students per social worker, according to the comptroller.

The comptroller’ compares that to the ratio of New York Police Department school safety agents who are placed in schools: There is one safety agent per 228 students, according to the report.

“Our city is failing to meet the social and emotional needs of our students,” Councilman Mark Treyger, of Brooklyn, who has pushed the city to report more up-to-date bullying data and to hire more school counselors, said in an emailed statement.

Schools may be underreporting violent incidents, something the education department disputes.

In a separate audit, the comptroller compared logs kept by school safety agents to incident reports filed by school leaders. In 21 percent of cases, incidents that were noted by safety agents were not reflected in the school reports.

The school data, in turn, are used to report incidents to the state for its Violent and Disruptive Incident Report, or VADIR. The discrepancy could raise questions about the already-controversial reporting system. (VADIR has been criticized for classifying schoolyard incidents as serious offenses, and the state has tweaked its definitions in response to those kinds of concerns.)

This finding also comes with some caveats. The comptroller looked at only 10 schools — a tiny sample of the city’s portfolio of about 1,800. And the education department took issue with the methodology.

In its response to the audit, education department officials said that the police data doesn’t align with the state’s reporting categories, and that the information may not be comparable because of student privacy concerns and recordkeeping issues on campuses where multiple schools share a building.