By Bruce Parker | Vermont Watchdog
It’s a best-seller at bake sales, a king of American confections, even a mandatory munchie of marijuana users. But the iconic chocolate brownie, that perfect blend of cake and cookie, is banned in Vermont schools.
In its place are new hoped-for kid favorites like fruit shish kebab, kale and even gluten-free paleo lemon bars.
The switch stems from nutrition mandates required under the new Smart-Snacks-in-Schools program in effect for public schools.
“The new school lunch pattern has low-fat, leaner proteins, greater variety and larger portions of fruits and vegetables; the grains have to be 100 percent whole-grain rich,” Laurie Colgan, child nutrition program director at the Agency of Education, told Vermont Watchdog.
The new rules, which evolved out of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, spell death to brownies, cupcakes, cookies and other bake sale goodies used to raise money for extracurriculars at money-strapped schools.
Deborah Quackenbush, education division director at the Agency of Education, said Smart Snack standards apply to a la carte lunch items, vending machines and fundraising events between midnight and half an hour after school.
The standard does not apply to off-campus events or to concessions for sporting events, plays and concerts. Moms who send brownies or cupcakes to celebrate a child’s birthday in the new dessert-averse environment will be permitted to do so.
“These changes are really supporting the types of diets that we as a country should be following to have a healthy diet and lifestyle,” Colgan said.
While the rules favor death to chocolate instead of death by chocolate, Colgan said the guidelines do not necessarily spell death for school fundraisers.
“If you have a food fundraiser and the foods meet the guidelines, then you can have that fundraiser. …Schools have fundraisers that are selling things like grapefruits and oranges from Florida. They’re selling flower bulbs, cards and wrapping paper. There are a lot of non-food fundraisers schools are using.”
To address the fundraising dilemma created by new mandates, some nutrition sites suggest fundraisers that offer gluten-free, vegan and paleo diet options such as sugar-free paleo lemon bars.
Shelley Mathias, principal of Edmunds Elementary School in Burlington, said she welcomed the federal Smart Snack standards, but she added her school was “ahead of the game” in banning dessert for kids.
“We haven’t had desserts in our schools. This is my fourth year, and I’ve never seen a dessert served in the school. The kids like kale here, and they eat broccoli. Really, we’ve been ahead of the game,” Mathias said.
“We have an excellent farm-to-school program, and kids get free snacks that consist of fruits and vegetables, possibly cheese and some fiber.”
Unlike Agency of Education rules that permit sweets in classroom birthday celebrations, Edmunds offers no compromise with what Mathias called “old commodity foods that were not exactly the most healthy things in the world.”
“If you look in our handbook, we’re asking people to send in healthy snacks if there is a birthday or something like that. We have some great alternatives, like fruit shish kebab.”
But some states are beginning to revolt against the federal nutrition standards. In Massachusetts, an uprising over lost bake sale revenue led the state to repeal the standards for fundraisers. Two New York school districts abandoned the national school lunch program altogether after participation dropped precipitously. Other states are struggling with a “plate waste” epidemic estimated to cost more than $1 billion.
U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics indicate student school lunch participation is down nationwide in conjunction with the nutrition standards of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. More than 1 million students have chosen to opt out of eating school lunches. In Vermont, the number of students participating in school lunches over the past year has dropped from 54,209 to 51,537.
While kids may be voting with their taste buds, adults are up in arms because booster clubs rely on dessert-driven fundraisers to support extracurricular activities.
Like other states, Vermont had the opportunity to exempt fundraisers from nutrition mandates. But Colgan nixed the exemption after consulting with executive directors of multiple school associations. She said fundraising groups must comply with the new school nutrition environment.
“If the school food-service program needs to be serving all these healthy foods, then the whole school environment should be supporting that notion through their school nutrition policies and with fundraising and all foods sold in schools,” Colgan said.
She said brownies might still be acceptable under the new government standards — but only if flour is whole grain rich, fat is less than 35 percent of weight and portions are 200 calories or fewer.
Colgan, Vermont’s nutrition expert and a trustee for Jaquith Public Library in Marshfield, Vt., is helping plan the library’s Harvest Festival for October. Organizers said festival bake sale items will include brownies, whoopee pies and cookies to help raise money for the library.
Contact Bruce Parker at [email protected]