Next year’s fundraisers aren’t a concern for Leslie Peterson. But she might be the only PTA president in Illinois who isn’t worried. In the wake of the recent junk food ban by the Illinois State Board of Education, sports teams, school clubs and PTAs that have counted on candy and food sales will be scrambling for new fundraising ideas for the upcoming school year.
"There are plenty of other possibilities out there besides food," says Leslie Peterson, who heads the Kruse Education Center PTA in Orland Park.
"When we do a big fundraiser in the fall, a lot of vendors will encourage us to include candy, and we have turned those down. We still raise what we feel we need to be productive over a full year."
Fortunately for Peterson, the Kruse PTA rarely sells food to raise money and never sells during the school day. But many other school clubs will have to rethink their entire fundraising strategy before the fall.
The junk food ban will be incorporated into Illinois school wellness plans, which address everything from physical education to birthday treats. Wellness plans are required nationwide by the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004. But they come at a time when budgets are tight for many schools. The pressure is on for PTO and PTA groups to provide supplemental funds.
The state board of education banned the sale of sweets in elementary and junior high schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program. They also created a stricter definition of junk food—defining it by the content rather than the type of food.
Although the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules delayed the ban last month, state board spokesperson Meta Minton says officials are operating on the premise that the problems will be worked out, and the rules will be in place by fall.
The rules can be confusing, because the definition varies among age groups.
According to the new rules:
Food with more than 35 percent calories from fat or 10 percent saturated fat cannot be sold before or during the regular school day.
Juice for pre-kindergarten through fifth grade must contain 100 percent real juice and can be sold in containers of only eight ounces or less. Juice sold to grades six through eight must contain at least 50 percent real juice and cannot be in containers larger than 12 ounces.
Whole milk will be sold in containers of only eight ounces or less.
The Illinois Parent Teacher Association welcomes the junk food ban, says Theresa Christenson, the group’s chairman of health.
"For years the PTA has been selling pizza and hot dogs, but now we’re telling people they can raise money healthy, through things like bike-a-thons and walk-a-thons," Christenson says. "We’re on the bandwagon, too."
(In theory, meal-time food sales—even if they are nutritionally acceptable—haven’t been a good fundraiser for 30 years. According to state legislation, any food sales during breakfast or lunch compete with the federal subsidized programs. So all money raised must be deposited into the nonprofit school foods program account. That has not changed, says Jonathan Furr, general counsel to the board.)
Although critics of the ban claim it is an election ploy by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Minton says the new rules have kids’ best interests in mind. The proposed regulations remove the temptation of junk food during the school day, which will hopefully improve classroom performance.
"Nationally, 15 percent of children ages 5 to 19 are overweight. That’s three times where we were 20 years ago," Minton says. "When you see the number jump that high over just 20 years, who knows what could happen over the next 20 years. It just makes sense to get the junk food away from our children."
"Each school district must have a wellness plan by August of this year, and most of the schools have already begun," says Joyce Karon, a member of the Illinois State Board of Education. "What it has created is a community basis for developing good nutritional habits."
All of this is causing school food services companies to promote healthy eating. Food companies such as Sodexho, which provides food service for many local elementary and high schools, have revised the ingredients in some lunchtime favorites. Sodexho’s pizza crusts are now made from whole wheat. The company also stopped using trans fat oils in cooking.
"We recently had our physical education teachers meet with one of the officials from the food service vendor and talk about the issue of nutritious meals that are appealing to the children," says Marion Hoyda, superintendent of Community Consolidated School District 146 in Tinley Park.
All of this also trickles down to parents and treats.
"Birthday treats are a big deal at the elementary level. Cupcakes are important," Hoyda says. "How can we begin to have some dialogue around nutritional snacks that will be well received by our parents and our students? We’ve just begun to discuss it at the administrative level."
Many schools are trying to incorporate nutrition education into the curriculum by teaching kids how to read labels and make healthy choices. The PTA’s healthy lifestyle program is showing parents how to pack healthy lunches and keep their kids well-fed.
"We want to educate them that drive-through food every night is not the answer. That’s very important for working parents now," says Christenson, who spoke on child obesity at the April PTA convention in Lisle. "It’s a hard thing to combat, and I think with education we will do it."
Anne Halliday, a Chicago Parent intern, is a student in Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.