Competitive Foods: Changing Fundraisers, Changing Schools

April 09, 2013

Today is your last day to submit comments to the USDA and raise your voice for smarter competitive food options in schools! Here’s how healthier school fundraisers are making the healthy choice the easy choice.

Today is the last day to submit comments to the USDA on its proposed guidelines for competitive foods in schools, or any food or beverage sold in schools outside the National School Lunch Program. These include a la carte cafeteria items, snacks and beverages in vending machines and school stores, and more. Many people — students, parents, school administrators and policy-makers — have been taking the time to make sure their voices are heard.

One of the most divisive issues around competitive foods has been school fundraisers, and in our eyes, no parent group is more synonymous with parent-led fundraising than the PTA. A simple Google search shows how in the past, these fundraisers have often used unhealthy snack items like candy or cookie dough. We know that change is not easy and parents may be concerned if new regulations were to prevent these fundraisers from continuing.

That is why we’re so impressed with the work that’s being done to facilitate healthier school fundraisers, particularly on the part of the PTA. Many communities and school districts within the state have gone above and beyond the USDA’s proposed guidelines, with an emphasis on healthy fundraisers, particularly schools that have done walkathons to raise money. The emphasis on healthy fundraisers in particular is reflective of a sea change in PTA practices, and a powerful statement. For the PTA to work and advocate for student health and acknowledge the importance of making this shift with competitive foods and school fundraisers is a fantastic sea change, and we applaud these efforts.

With respect to competitive foods and school health at large, the National PTA is working to bring parents, schools and lawmakers together to support actions that promote the wellness and education of the whole child. “Having a child graduate with a diploma doesn’t do a whole lot if they’re not healthy,” explains Kelly Langston of the North Carolina PTA.

Langston, who serves as the Treasurer, Federal Legislative Chair and a member of the Health & Welfare Committee for North Carolina PTA, has seen the impact of current policy firsthand, not only as a PTA leader but as the mother of four schoolchildren, one in elementary school, one in middle and one in high school.

In the past, the PTA has supported health-promoting changes to school meal programs, and now, National PTA has issued a statement in support of the USDA’s proposed guidelines on competitive foods. Langston highlights recent research that suggests a huge impact can be made to combat childhood obesity by cutting an average of 120 calories, and although calories may not be the be-all-end-all when discussing healthy options, that is an easy change to make, the equivalent to one bag of chips.

Langston says the PTA is working to give parents and teachers the facts and resources they need to return to their schools and communities and create change. On this particular issue, the organization released an action alert and is hosting its own comment drive to encourage parents and other stakeholders to stand up for healthy snack and beverage options in schools. Langston says encouraging parents to be a part of the movement is key, but that it is important to frame the changes in a positive light so that all parties feel good about what’s ahead.

“I think our kids hear what we’re saying and sense what we’re feeling about it. If we present that it’s a negative thing, our kids will think the same,” she says. “What we need to show is that we all really want the best for our kids.”

School districts in a number of states have already taken steps toward healthier competitive food options, and so far, these have led to good outcomes as far as student health is concerned. Langston attributes this to creating these positive partnerships. She says in some cases, parents are the more proactive group; in other cases, the schools have done more advocacy in this area. Each party has a role to play: parents can start the conversation and educate administrators and teachers, whereas schools can do the same for parents and put the changes into context with discussions and activities, such as having healthy food tastings at parent meetings. Involving the students is important, too, and putting the changes into a positive context for them will motivate healthy behaviors. “In doing things for our children, we forget we need to do things with our children,” Langston says.

In North Carolina, the PTA has worked with Blue Cross Blue Shield on healthier programs, and has helped schools write grants for new health initiatives and activities. PTA members are practicing what they preach by bringing in healthier foods at meetings. At Langston’s own community elementary school, volunteers launched a healthy biking program, and a grocery store is donating fruits and vegetables for students to try during lunchtime.

Langston says she would like to see the new USDA guidelines in place, and for schools to continue to work to create healthy spaces for children. But more than that, she wants to see children and families looking at changes for health in a positive light and extend those changes to home life as well. “I want parents to say, ‘This is something good for my child at school and will be good for my child at home.’”

Today is your last day to submit comments to the USDA and raise your voice for smarter competitive food options in schools. Let’s help make the healthy choice the easy choice. Submit your comments through our partner link with PreventObesity.net.

Looking for healthy school fundraising ideas? Here's a few resources and tips!