The first minivan rolls up at Midway Elementary School just after 7 a.m. Out pop two youngsters, one with a $20 bill in her hand to buy six Chick-fil-A biscuits. The children get one biscuit each, and the other four are passed back into the minivan for a parent to take to work.
The scene outside Midway Elementary School repeated itself for 30 minutes in an incredibly easy fundraising effort. No arm twisting. No begging. Just an hour of work ‑ considering setup and take-down time for the tables – to sell 500 biscuits and earn $625 in profit for the school’s Parent-Teacher Organization.
But the simple fundraiser might have to end because it’s caught up in a complex discussion about children’s health.
Federal Smart Snack guidelines that went into effect this year ban these types of events because Chick-fil-A biscuits don’t meet healthy guidelines. The Smart Snack rules were designed as another step in the fight against childhood obesity. They don’t ban serving cupcakes to celebrate special events or even selling cookie dough door to door in neighborhoods. But they do rule out fundraisers selling unhealthy food on school property that would be consumed by students during the school day.
Some parents see the fundraising ban as federal overreach. Ashley Cooper forked out $6 for two biscuits and helped two children tuck them in their book bags.
“The kids love them,” Cooper said. “They can eat them now or save them for a snack. I mean it’s a Chick-fil-A biscuit. It doesn’t have bacon or cheese or all of that stuff on it.”
Anne Marie Green, president of the Midway PTO, said the biscuits have too much sodium to meet Smart Snack guidelines. She checked to see if the smaller Chick-n-Minis might cut it. They, too, have too much sodium.
The guidelines do allow states to ask for a set number of exemption days when non-healthy snacks can be sold. The S.C. Board of Education sent a letter to school districts late in the summer suggesting they could go ahead with a limited number of food-related fundraisers while the debate continues on how many exemptions to allow.
Many state health leaders, including Eat Smart Move More SC and the S.C. Medical Association, are pushing for no exemptions. They see the guidelines as an important way to set an example for children. Nearly 4,000 people have signed an online petition urging the state board to allow no exemptions.
“We need to ensure that the healthy choice is the easy choice for our schoolchildren,” said Beth Franco, executive director of Eat Smart Move More. “The best way to do this is to guarantee that there are zero exemptions to Smart Snack guidelines in all of South Carolina’s schools.”
With almost 40 percent of its children ages 10-17 either overweight or obese, South Carolina ranks next to the worst among the 50 states. And that rate has been on a rapid rise for the past two decades.
“Good habits learned as a child are easy to maintain, but poor habits are difficult to change,” said Dr. Bruce Snyder, past president of the S.C. Medical Association.
When those groups reminded state school board members of the grim statistics at the October meeting, outgoing state Superintendent of Education Mick Zais referred to them as the Twinkie Police.
After the state board’s first vote on the issue in October allowed 90 days’ worth of exemptions per school year, health leaders went into full lobbying mode. Their emails, letters and phone calls seem to have made an impact. The second vote on the proposal has been delayed for two months, giving both sides time to work on a compromise.
“It has been highly, highly debated,” said state board member Traci Young Cooper. “With a sensitive matter like this, you’re not going to please everybody.”
Cooper sees the need to take strong measures to slow the childhood obesity epidemic, but she doesn’t want to go too far and tie the hands of fundraising groups in the short term. She expects the board will tweak its original proposal, slowly reducing the number of exemption days each year for a several years.
That could give the groups time to come up with alternative fundraising events. Some schools put on running events, thus raising money while encouraging a healthy habit. J.L. Mann High School in Greenville sold smoothies that met the Smart Snack guidelines.
Lexington 1 in September told its PTO leaders that one of the Chick-fil-A events could be held each month from October through December while the subject was being debated. The September event at Midway, scheduled before the state board’s letter, had to be canceled. That resulted in about a one-ninth reduction in the roughly $6,000 raised annually through biscuit sales to pay for school field trips and supplies.
Now, the PTO isn’t sure what to do about its planned January sale. The Lexington 1 board originally approved the sales only through the end of 2014, hoping the state board would have a policy in place by then. The delay has been nearly as frustrating as the debate itself.
“We don’t do this because we love doing it and it’s fun,” Green said, mentioning one fundraiser last February held on a morning when temperatures were in the teens. “We do it because the schools need the funds.”