At Chapman School in Nebraska, resourceful students hawk pizza and cookie dough to raise money for school supplies, field trips and an eighth-grade excursion to Washington. They peddle chocolate bars to help fund the yearbook.
But the sales won’t be so sweet starting this fall. Campus bake sales – a mainstay of school fundraisers – are going on a diet. A federal law that aims to curb childhood obesity means that, in dozens of states, bake sales must adhere to nutrition requirements that could replace cupcakes and brownies with fruit cups and granola bars.
Jeff Ellsworth, principal of the kindergarten through eighth-grade school in Chapman, Neb., isn’t quite sure how to break the news to the kids. “The chocolate bars are a big seller,” said Mr. Ellsworth.
The restrictions that took effect in July stem from the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act championed by first lady Michelle Obama and her “Let’s Move!” campaign. The law overhauled nutrition standards affecting more than 30 million children. Among the changes: fatty french fries were out, while baked sweet potato fries were deemed to be fine.
The law also required the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set standards for all food and beverages sold during the school day, which includes vending machines, snack carts and daytime fundraisers. It allowed for “infrequent” fundraisers, and states were allowed to decide how many bake sales they would have that didn’t meet nutrition standards.
Without state-approved exemptions, any treats sold would have to meet calorie, sodium, fat and other requirements. The law permits states to fine schools that don’t comply.
Forget about buttery, salty popcorn, for instance. Kernels sold on site during the day must contain no more than 230 milligrams of sodium per serving until 2016, when it drops even lower. No more than 35% of calories in an item can come from total fat.
A graphic put out by the USDA shows where some snacks stand.
Six chocolate sandwich cookies at 286 calories would be out, but a 4-ounce fruit cup with 100% juice at 68 calories would make the cut. Also out: a large doughnut at 242 calories and a 1.6 oz. chocolate bar with 235 calories.
Homemade fare is more challenging to measure, schools say.
Each state can mandate the number of daytime fundraisers held each year that buck the nutrition requirements. But so far, 32 states have opted to stay strictly in the healthy zone, according to a draft report from the School Nutrition Association, which said the final number could change before the school year begins.
That means students in those states, which range from Alabama to California to Texas, can’t sell fatty or sugary fare that doesn’t meet the federal requirements.
“For some districts, this will be a huge change,” said Julia Bauscher, president of the School Nutrition Association and director of school and community nutrition services at Jefferson County Public School in Louisville, Ky. “There’s a lot of fear among school food directors that we will have to be the food police.”
The Obama administration said it has provided states flexibility with the rules, which cover schools that participate in the federal school meals programs. “We defer to the states to make decisions that made sense to them,” said Sam Kass, executive director of Let’s Move!
Tennessee will allow schools to sell food items that tip the federal scales for 30 days each year.
“Schools have relied on these types of sales as revenue streams for sports, cheering clubs, marching bands,” said David Sevier, deputy executive director of the Tennessee Board of Education. “We get the obesity issue, but we don’t want to jerk this out from under the kids.”
In advance of the law, some schools had already banned students from a near-sacred activity: setting up tables to sell boxes of Girl Scout cookies during the day. There are also those that have replaced food-centric fundraisers with calorie-free events such as wrapping-paper sales, pie-throwing events and bowl-a-thons. Others have prohibited homemade fare in favor of processed items where the nutritional information is calculated and displayed.
At least 12 states have also already adopted limits on bake-sale foods on their own—providing a taste of what’s to come for hundreds of schools nationwide.
“We used to have a carnival with a cake walk, now we do a book walk,” said Adam Drummond, principal of Lincoln Elementary School in Huntington, Ind. “The students get to pick a book.”
Child obesity has more than quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of children 6-11, in 2012, 18% were obese. That is up from 7% in 1980, according to the CDC.
Texas has had nutrition requirements since at least 2010 that cover fundraisers, but had allowed campuses to have three events a year during the school day where students could sell candy or other restricted items. This year, it didn’t adopt such exemptions.
“Some don’t follow the spirit and set up bake sales right after the bell rings,” said Christine Jovanovic, of Austin, who is a member of the parent-teacher association at Canyon Vista Middle School and Westwood High School.
The result of the new requirements may be more processed-food products.
“We use prepackaged food because it has to have nutritional requirements posted,” said Keli Gill, president-elect of the Arkansas PTA, where the state has had nutrition standards for bake sales for a few years. “Items like apples are perishable and don’t last as long, so we don’t want to waste money and have it go bad on us.”
Schools are also grappling with how to monitor food sales so as not to end up in the penalty box.
Davis High School in Kaysville, Utah, was fined more than $15,000 during the 2012-2013 school year for selling certain snacks and carbonated beverages near the lunch area while meals were served, which isn’t allowed under federal requirements. The Utah Department of Education conducted on-site visits and found the infractions. The fine was reduced to $1,297, according to Christopher Williams, a district spokesman.
Said Tennessee’s Mr. Sevier: “It’s not like we’re going to have a brigade of black helicopters coming in to check.”