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Every year, the Beacon School in Manhattan produces a literary magazine called Beacon Ink, featuring students' short stories, poetry, and full-color artwork. The students work on it all year, gaining editorial experience and the chance to cite a publication on their college applications. It costs about $2,400 to print 200 magazines.
Where does the money come from? Cupcakes.
"There is no budget for after-school programs," says Sarah Fink, an English teacher at the Beacon School who supervises Beacon Ink. "Bake sales are pure profit. The ingredients are cheap, and the students can do the baking themselves."
That was the case, at least, until the end of June, when the Department of Education, with the help of the Department of Health, issued a new wellness policy for New York City schools that laid out strict nutritional standards for school food. To support these standards, the city has decided to enforce an old rule: Only Parent-Teacher Associations can hold bake sales, once a month and after the last school lunch period.
But in the face of steep budget cuts, student-run bake sales feel more needed than ever. The money pays for team uniforms and equipment, yearbooks, proms, and class trips. Students at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens raised $1,000 for Save the Children.
Now, students have to look for other ways to raise money. The student editors of Beacon Ink considered a T-shirt sale and a garage sale where they could hawk their unwanted clothes and old books. "We're showing the movie Hercules tonight to raise money for our senior trip to Greece and Rome," says Seth Hoffman, a senior at Beacon and an editor of Beacon Ink.
This kind of fundraising can't compete with bake sales, however. Students can make $100 to $500 in a single day, according to Hoffman, and they can do it on their own. "With bake sales, students can be autonomous," Fink says. "Other types of fundraisers require adult supervision and capital. You need money to buy T-shirts."
Hoffman has joined forces with another frustrated student, Matthew Melore, to launch a petition on Facebook to bring back student bake sales. Melore is a senior at the Bronx High School of Science and president of the table tennis club. He planned to hold a bake sale to replace his school's broken ping-pong tables until he heard about the ban. "I thought it was the strangest thing I had ever heard in my life," he says. "It just didn't make sense to me at all, and I had to fight it."
Twelve high schools and hundreds of students have joined the effort, so far collecting more than 3,500 signatures in support of the petition. They plan to present the signatures to Chancellor Joel Klein.
The restrictions on bake sales come amid growing concerns over the obesity of New York City school children. About 40 percent of New York City elementary and middle school students are overweight or obese, according to the Department of Education.
"This isn't about limiting choice," says DOE spokesperson William Havemann. "This isn't about trying to reduce the amount of money that PTAs, kids, and clubs can make. It's about making sure that when kids are in school, they're eating healthy and that we're not contributing to this problem that is very severe in this city and across the country."
"Bake sales are not banned," Havemann says, noting that Parent-Teacher Associations are still allowed to hold sales once a month. He says the Office for Family Engagement and Advocacy will educate members of PTAs on the new regulations and on other ways to raise money, including bake sales that provide healthier options. One school, he notes, banned selling brownies and lemon bars even before the DOE announced its new regulations. Instead, the principal invested in blenders, and the school sold fruit smoothies. (Under the new regulations, though, only PTAs can sell any kind of food, and even then, only after lunch has ended or after 6 p.m. on weekdays, when students have gone home for the day.)
"This isn't prohibiting food in schools—this is about prohibiting junk food," Havemann says, adding that under the new rules, "anything that is in vending machines meets very, very rigorous standards."
The Department of Health's new nutritional standards strictly limit the sugar, fat, and calories of all school foods. Beverages sold in school stores and vending machines must have no more than 10 calories per eight-ounce serving and contain no artificial colors or flavors. (High school vending machines may sell beverages with 25 calories per eight ounces.) Snacks must not exceed 200 calories or 200 milligrams of sodium per item, and must derive less than 10 percent of their total calories from saturated fat.
Joanna Dolgoff, a pediatrician and child obesity specialist with offices in Manhattan and on Long Island, says she's "thrilled" about the new regulations. She has been working to get school districts to ban junk food for years.
"I can't tell you how many times I've had kids crying in my office," she says. "They are trying to be good, but every day, there's a birthday party or a bake sale or someone is bringing in food for Halloween or Thanksgiving. It's hard to expect an eight-year-old to say no to junk food. Schools shouldn't put them in that situation."
Under Mayor Bloomberg, the DOE has tried to shape up school lunches, too. Hamburgers are now served on whole-wheat buns. Chicken nuggets and French fries remain on the menu, but they're baked instead of fried.
Still, some feel that the Education Department has misplaced its energy. "If the Education Department wants to combat obesity," says Loren Steele, a science teacher at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, "why not provide more fresh fruits and vegetables at lunchtime? Our school has a salad bar, but most of the items are canned—canned green beans, canned kidney beans, canned corn. That's not appealing to kids."
Jill Crandall, the mother of a LaGuardia High School senior and a diabetes researcher at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, says that when her daughter was in elementary and middle school, she only had gym once a week. "They should be having gym every day, as far as I'm concerned."
Lori Rose Benson, director of the DOE's Office of Fitness and Health Education, says the department is addressing this problem. The number of elementary schools with a dedicated physical ed teacher has risen from 75 percent to 92 percent since 2003, she says, and the DOE, with the help of the Department of Health, has created a curriculum called "Move to Improve" to help classroom teachers in kindergarten through third grade incorporate movement into the classroom.
Still, Crandall doesn't think much of the city's bake sale edict. "As someone who deals with nutrition and thinks a lot about obesity," she says, "I see this as a completely ineffective strategy. Restricting access to dessert once a month is just not going to have any result. It also demonizes certain foods, as if there is never any excuse to eat a cupcake. That's ridiculous. Good nutrition, healthful eating, can always accommodate an occasional treat."
Now, teachers like Fink, at the Beacon School, worry that their after-school projects are doomed. Fink recalls the excitement last year as the students awaited the delivery of the Beacon Ink magazines they had worked so hard on. "They chased the UPS guy down the street," Fink says. "If you had just seen the look on their faces when they opened that box."
Melore, the student from Bronx Science who started the Facebook initiative, shares Fink's frustration. He says the Education Department isn't really thinking about the effect this policy will have on underfunded schools.
"I don't think banning bake sales is going to solve the problem of obesity," says Melore. "I just think it was an easy way for the Education Department to look like they're addressing the problem."