State limits junk food sales for school fundraising

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Starting next year, high schools across the state must sharply limit the sale of unhealthy snacks – such as candy bars and chips – during in-school fundraisers.

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) approved new, phased-in limits on so-called “exempted fundraisers” during its meeting Wednesday. In the first year, high school fundraisers can sell unhealthy foods during school hours once per week. The frequency will drop to twice a month in the second year, and once a month in the third year and beyond.

The rules – which were approved on an emergency basis pending a public comment period – respond to new strict federal nutritional guidelines on all foods and beverages sold in schools.

Schools across the country have been bracing for the U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, which kick into effect in July and apply to schools that participate in the federal school lunch or breakfast programs.

In Chicago, schools are already supposed to abide by strict rules on any snacks sold in school fundraisers, a la carte lines and vending machines. The rules, which were approved by the Board of Education in 2012, prohibit schools from holding more than two fundraisers per year with junk food sales. CPS also limits the number of classroom or school parties where unhealthy snacks are served to two per year. 

“We doubted we could be less strict than ISBE,” said Leslie Fowler, CPS executive director of nutrition support services. “ISBE has taken a very lenient stance. I almost think that [phasing in the reduction of exempted fundraisers] it makes it more difficult, instead of just ripping the Band-Aid off.”

Fowler said most principals, teachers and parents have bought into the strict CPS policy, but it has taken a lot of communication at the school level. And there are still challenges. When she learns of fundraisers or parties that involve unhealthy foods, Fowler tries to meet with the principals and remind them of the importance of establishing a healthy eating environment – without taking a punitive approach.

“We’re set up as an advocate and support system as opposed to an adversary,” she said. “But it can be challenging because this really puts us against a classic tradition that happens in schools every day, whether it’s a parent who wants to bring cupcakes for a party or a teacher who wants to reward their class with a pizza party.”

How ISBE drafted rules

The state’s new limits on “exempted fundraisers” will have a greater impact in districts outside of Chicago that haven’t established their own strict rules.

“This will mean different things to different schools,” said ISBE superintendent Chris Koch during Wednesday’s board meeting. “There are districts that do sales every day during the school year.”

Initially, ISBE had sought to allow districts to set their own limits on exempted fundraisers. But USDA officials told the state it could not delegate its authority to districts.

Staff at ISBE then drafted a proposal to phase in the reduction in fundraising days at high schools over a period of six years. But health advocates who spoke up during Wednesday’s meeting encouraged board members to either cut the number of exemptions or reduce the phase-in period.

“We understand that schools are stretched [for fundraising dollars],” said Elissa Bassler, CEO of the Illinois Public Health Institute. “Cold turkey is probably a difficult goal to achieve, but six years seems like a really long time.”

Mark Bishop, vice president of policy for the Chicago-based Healthy Schools Campaign, said no other state has set such a high limit on “unhealthy school fundraisers.”

“In a society where one of three of our children is obese or overweight,” he said, “we have a responsibility to put our children’s health first.”

In response, ISBE members agreed to shorten the phase-in period to three years.

Because the federal restrictions go into effect in a matter of weeks, ISBE approved the rule changes on an emergency basis. Board members, however, also sent forward a proposed permanent rule change into a public comment period. The proposal will return to ISBE for a final vote later this year.