Schools Flout Wellness Policies with High-Calorie Fundraisers

12/20/2012

Many public U.S. elementary schools ignore state and district policies banning unhealthy fundraisers or don’t restrict sales at all, a study by University of Illinois at Chicago scientists shows.

Overall, only 39 percent of schools had nutritional restrictions on fundraisers, but schools within districts and states with strong policies were more than twice as likely to limit the sale of high-calorie and high-fat foods to raise money, Lindsey Turner and colleagues discovered.

“As there’s increasing awareness of the issue of childhood obesity, I think more parents will become aware of these issues and pay attention to school activities like fundraisers,” said Turner, a researcher at the Institute for Health Research and Policy. “Kids are consuming a fair amount of calories from those activities.”

More than a third of American children are overweight or obese.

Parent-teacher organizations long have turned to bake sales, pizza nights and ice cream socials to help pay for extras not covered by school budgets. About three-quarters of elementary school organizations sold food to raise money in 2006, before the recession, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those groups, 50 percent sold chocolate candies or baked goods. In tight economic times, fundraisers may have become more important to school finances.

“It’s hard for schools to give up those financial resources, so that’s why it is essential to have alternative fundraising activities that don’t involve high-calorie products,” Turner said. Such activities include walk-a-thons and selling books, greeting cards, fruit, holiday decorations or wrapping paper, suggests the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which advocates for stronger policies to fight obesity.

The research comes as the U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to issue nutritional guidelines for school food and beverages sold outside of school meals. As part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, schools receiving federal funding for meal programs may be required to follow stricter dietary guidelines for all foods sold in schools that compete with those meals, including items sold in vending machines, snack bars and a la carte lines in cafeterias, as well as foods served in classroom parties and used as rewards. The guidelines, yet to be detailed, may or may not address fundraisers, Turner said.

“This study puts fundraising on the radar as an issue that needs to be attended to in policy making,” she said. “There has been a lot of attention paid to competitive foods and beverages, and this is a really important piece of the entire picture of what’s going on in schools.”

In the study, principals of 1,215 schools across the nation completed surveys regarding their school’s health-related policies and practices for the 2009-11 school years. As part of the Bridging the Gap research project, Turner and colleagues have surveyed principals annually since 2006-07, when the federal government first required school districts to have wellness policies.

The research was published in the November issue of PLOS One.

Turner’s analysis showed school-level policies were not consistent with state laws and district policies. When state- and district-level rules required limitations, only 58 percent of schools had a school-level policy restricting food in fundraisers.

But state and district policies did influence school policies. In states and districts without food restrictions on fundraisers, more than 70 percent of schools did not have any.

Among the schools located in districts and states with strong policies, the schools with policies restricting food in fundraisers were more likely to be in the West than the South, along with schools with a majority Latino population, over schools with a majority of white or African-American students.

Turner, a health psychologist and mother of two, said parents and advocacy organizations should work together to change school -- and by extension -- family culture.

“We’re aware of how important it is to model healthy habits and to be consistent in our messages, not to just tell kids what to eat, but to model that,” she said.

Frank Chaloupka, distinguished professor of economics and co-director of Bridging the Gap, and Jamie Chriqui, senior research scientist at IHRP, were Turner’s co-authors on the study.

Bridging the Gap is a nationally recognized research program funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and dedicated to improving the understanding of how policies and environmental factors affect diet, physical activity and obesity among youth, as well as youth tobacco use. It is a joint project of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Institute for Health Research and Policy and the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. For more information, see www.bridgingthegapresearch.org.

Read the study, “Healthier Fundraising in U.S. Elementary Schools: Associations between Policies at the State, District, and School Levels.”

Editor's note: The U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed new rules for foods sold in school in early February 2013. According to a USDA news release, "the proposed standards would not apply to food or beverages sold on school grounds, during school hours at 'a limited number' of school fundraisers." See the Federal Register to read the proposed rule and comment by April 9, 2013.

This news release was written by Janet Hill, a master’s degree student in the UIC School of Public Health.