WASHINGTON - February 14 - Schools often rely on fundraisers to bridge budget gaps and help pay for athletic equipment, field trips, and supplies. But even though rates of childhood obesity have tripled in recent years, those fundraisers all too often rely on the sale of calorie-dense, low-nutrient junk food, according to a new report from the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Fortunately, says the group, schools have a wide range of non-food and healthy-food fundraising options to choose from, and experience shows that these options can raise as much or even more money than junk-food sales.
"Health-conscious parents have a hard enough time without schools pressuring their children to buy even more junk food to help pay for their own education," said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. "Why put parents in that position when there are perfectly good fundraisers that don’t jeopardize children's health?"
Unhealthy fundraising options that CSPI recommends avoiding include:
• Candy, cookie dough, doughnut, pizza, or pizza kit sales. These are among the most common school fundraisers, but enlisting school children to sell junk-food sends them the wrong message about the importance of healthy eating, according to CSPI. Junk foods are even included in the catalogs of many gift-wrap programs.
• Fast-food fundraisers. McDonald’s, Chuck E. Cheese’s, Little Caesars, Krispy Kreme, Burger King, and other chains have school fundraising nights, gift cards, and other programs that encourage families to spend money at the chains. The restaurants enjoy the marketing and the opportunity to bring in more customers on weeknights, but most of the menu options at these chains undermine children’s health.
• Label redemption programs. Campbell and General Mills each sponsor popular label redemption programs that are surprisingly unprofitable. To earn a $300 digital camcorder, parents would have to buy 27,850 cans of Campbell’s soup, about $33,000 worth. Twenty-two labels, or $26.40 worth of soup, would be required to earn a single colored pencil. Also, CSPI found that 80 percent of eligible products are unhealthy.
• Bake sales. A 2000 report from the Centers for Disease Control found bake sales in two-thirds of schools. Time-strapped parents typically purchase low-nutrition baked goods for the sales, only to send their children to school with money to buy them back. Parents end up paying twice.
• Vending machines. Not typically thought of as fundraisers, vending machines are one of the single biggest methods of raising funds in schools. CSPI calculated that the average amount of soft drinks high school students buy from school vending provides an extra 34,000 calories over four years. Happily, schools can make just as much money selling seltzer, juices, low-fat milks, and healthy snacks.
"Though perceived as lucrative, we found that school beverage contracts usually raise less than a quarter of one percent of school districts' budgets. That modest amount of money can be replaced," said Wootan. Recently, CSPI, with the Public Health Advocacy Institute, analyzed 120 school beverage contracts and found that those beverages raise an average of just $18 per student per year for schools or districts.
Some healthier fundraising programs available to schools include:
• Physical activity fundraisers. Walk-a-thons, 5Ks, 10Ks, bowl-a-thons, and other sports-related fundraisers promote physical activity for students and can be lucrative for schools.
• Book fairs. The publishing company Scholastic sponsors more than 100,000 book fairs per year, which promote literacy as well as raise funds.
• Scrip and grocery store fundraisers. Scrip is a gift card for use at local retail stores, which schools purchase at a discount. Many grocery chains have programs that disburse a percentage of shopper’s purchases to a school they designate. The Bonus Bucks program of the Giant Food chain in the mid-Atlantic region disburses $2 million to schools each year with only a little effort by—and at no additional cost to—parents.
• Recycling fundraisers. Used cell phones, empty printer cartridges, and even re-usable clothing can all be collected by schools in exchange for cash. Millions of printer cartridges are thrown away each year, yet schools can earn between $.06 and $2.20 per cartridge, depending on the model.
• Healthy food sales. Fruit, bottled water, spices, or granola bars can be sold instead of junk foods.
“A 5K race and walk has been a fantastic event and a popular fundraiser for our school,” said Juliet Rodman, a parent and registered dietitian who helped organize the successful annual event for the past three years at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, MD. The school had tried selling chocolate bars as a fundraiser, but the 5K was more successful at fostering school spirit, promoting exercise, and raising money for school programs, says Rodman.
New school wellness policies present an opportunity for parents, teachers, and school administrators to rethink unhealthy fundraisers, set nutrition standards for foods sold in schools, and to encourage physical activity, according to CSPI. Required by Congress in the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004, these policies should require that foods sold through fundraising programs, including vending machines and a la carte lines in cafeterias, meet those standards.
CSPI says parents should further spur progress by urging their members of Congress to cosponsor legislation that would require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to update its nutrition standards for all foods sold outside of school meal programs. In the last Congress, the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act was sponsored by Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who are expected to move similar legislation through Congress this year.
"It is time to junk the junk food fundraisers," said Wootan. "As a society we are sure to spend more on the resulting diet-related diseases than we could ever hope to raise selling junk food in schools."
A useful resource for time-strapped principals, PTA leaders, school clubs, and parents, CSPI's report, Sweet Deals, contains contact information for 60 companies that provide schools with healthy fundraising programs, and a dozen brief case studies of schools that have improved the nutritional quality of foods and beverages sold in school without losing revenue.
Support for this report was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Argosy Foundation.