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Cepeda: For fundraisers, bag the junk

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Esther J. Cepeda
September 21, 2013

CHICAGO -- It's late September. I've been to all the back-to-school meetings where well-meaning administrators paid lip service to student wellness, new standards of nutrition in the school cafeteria and healthy habits for high-performing students.

 Yet that usual suspect just came home in my son's backpack: the school fundraising catalog.

 Never mind the barbeque and chili suppers to try to engage parents with the school community, the omnipresent cheap chip-bag and candy-bar come-ons at evening meetings and the emails asking us to go to the local fast-food joint for a special “school night.” We're now well into fall appeal season, and the food offerings are standard fundraising fare.

 In addition to the wrapping papers, mugs and candle sets, there are sugary funnel-cake kits, assorted candies, the fatty multiflavored cookie doughs, fudge bars and oh-so-trendy cake pops. Plus the ultra-salty gourmet chips, soup and dip mixes, the cured meats and mixed nuts.

 Two years ago when I last wrote about the topic of how needy public schools trying to bolster their extracurricular programs through unhealthy fundraisers actually undermine efforts to stem our national, multigenerational obesity epidemic, it was like a tree falling in the woods.

 Imagine my delight to learn that not only are grass-roots movements for healthy food in schools starting to spread across the country, but big names in nutrition policy such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation are putting their efforts into addressing this ultra-touchy issue.

 From blog posts on “Bag the Junk,” a website of the Healthier School Food Advocacy project run by the National Education Association, to full-length Center for Science in the Public Interest videos on YouTube about how “School Fundraising Can Be Healthy and Profitable,” the word is finally starting to get around.

 This is due in no small part to a dedicated group of nutrition bloggers who don't aspire to being food nags but want school to be a place where good nutrition habits are both preached and practiced.

 “Two years ago, my oldest child was in kindergarten and I was so frustrated by all the junk food at school. It seemed like every week there was a birthday party, a bake sale,” noted Stacy Whitman, a mother of three elementary school students in Sun Valley, Idaho. “It seemed like such a disconnect because we live in a very healthy, progressive health conscious ski resort and the school was not a reflection of that.”

 “It's a mixed message that we're sending our kids. We tell them it's important to feed their body healthy foods, then we ask them to go out and sell junk food,” she added.

 Though Whitman approached a few moms about her concerns and they responded with “'Oh well, don't bother doing anything about it, it'll never change,'” she recently joined her school's parent-teacher association and has been blogging about how other parents can do the same. The goal: Change the culture of resorting to the easy fundraiser “that was done last year and is ready to go for this year.”

 On the “Bag the Junk” blog, Whitman post tips such as “find allies who value healthy eating—your school nurse, wellness committee members, teachers, parents or a local nutritionist—and ask them to come with you to talk to your PTA” and “Be careful not to offend anyone by sounding critical of their food choices. Instead, stick to the facts.” And, she told me, you have to be nice and keep going.

 “I sat at my first PTA board meeting last week and was afraid to bring it up myself—and that's the whole reason I joined the board!” Whitman said, referring to her charm offensive to win over the school's planners with fresh ideas and offers to take on the fundraising workload. “But there's a lot of positive momentum, and the conversation has started. Now it's up to parents to go in, slowly create good will around proposed changes and roll up our sleeves.”

 Not all parents have the time to lead or the desire to starve their kids' classrooms of much-needed funds. But don't let your child—or yourself or their grandparents—peddle junk food.

 When the sale deadline comes around, send your school's parent-teacher organization a modest check with a note that says: “Please let me know how I can help support healthier fundraisers.”

Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.



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