In a decision that weighed federal school nutrition regulations against local districts’ efforts to raise funds, a state board has come down on the side of local autonomy.
By a 9-to-1 vote Thursday, the Georgia Board of Education approved giving schools a series of exemptions from a federal requirement that prohibits the sale of high-calorie, high-fat and high-sodium foods during fundraisers held during school hours.
The dispute had shaped up as a “bake sale battle” because calorie-laden sweets have long been staples of such fundraisers.
The board first heard testimony from opponents of the proposal to allow as many as 30 exemptions from the healthy food fundraiser policy – which could add up to a total of 90 days per school year.
The opponents gave passionate arguments against the proposed policy.
Marsi Thrash of the American Heart Association’s Georgia chapter said the exemption proposal “puts revenues over children’s health.” She noted that Georgia has a high rate of child obesity, and that obese children are more at risk of becoming obese adults.
Karen Mathis, school nutrition director in Paulding County, urged the board to “prioritize the health of children over politics.’’
But board Chairwoman Helen Rice, who supported the exemptions, later argued that the fundraiser decisions should be made at the local level. And Superintendent John Barge said school districts can grant fewer than 30 exemptions if they choose.
Kenneth Mason of Atlanta was the lone Board of Education member to vote against the exemptions.
The fundraiser rule is among federal standards required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which sought to make school foods healthier by reducing sodium and increasing whole grains and servings of fresh fruits and vegetables.
According to the School Nutrition Association, 30 states have opted not to allow the sale of unhealthy foods, such as cookies, candy and doughnuts, at on-campus fundraisers. They include Southeastern states such as Alabama, Mississippi and North Carolina.
Barge and Rice said in a recent statement that the guidelines “are an absolute overreach of the federal government.”
“These fundraisers allow our schools to raise a considerable amount of money for very worthwhile education programs,’’ their joint statement said. “While we are concerned about the obesity epidemic, limiting food and beverage fundraisers at schools and school-related events is not the solution to solving it.”
A federal law dubbed the “Smart Snack Law” went into effect July 1. It sets limits for fat, salt and sugar sold in school outlets such as vending machines and snack bars. The school fundraiser requirement is part of the snack rules.
The federal guidelines on fundraisers do not apply during non-school hours, on weekends and at off-campus events.
Thrash of the Heart Association said some schools have held successful fundraisers that don’t involve selling any kind of food.
Her organization issued a statement after the vote saying, in part, “We encourage the state to enact policies that prioritize the health of our children over revenue. Allowing unhealthy foods to be sold in schools half the school year, and allowing districts to petition for additional exemptions does just the opposite.
“Children consume up to half of their calories at school each day. Choice is a good thing, but when it comes to our kids, choices offered at school should be healthy ones.”