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.