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For Immediate Release: August 13, 2009

NN: School Fundraisers: Supporting or Undermining Health Messages?

Nutrition Notes
Week of September 14, 2009
Contact: Alice Bender, (202) 328-7744

School Fundraisers: Supporting or
Undermining Health Messages?

Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN
American Institute for Cancer Research

Fundraisers have been a part of school and extra-curricular groups for many years, and as budgets get tighter, that income becomes more crucial. Now government and health experts are increasingly calling us to stop and consider the long-term effects of basing most of these fundraisers on high-calorie foods with little nutritional value.

More than twice as many children, and more than three times as many adolescents, are now obese compared to 1980. Since childhood obesity lays the groundwork for development of diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer later in life, health experts say we need major changes in youth eating and activity patterns. A 2009 report from the American Institute for Cancer Research on policies that support healthier lifestyles to lower cancer risk includes a recommendation that schools provide healthy meals and restrict availability of unhealthy foods and drinks.

Chocolate candy, cookies and other high-fat bakery items are sold in fundraisers in 50 percent of elementary schools and 67 percent of high schools, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The same survey reports that more than a third of states and school districts have policies prohibiting sales of “junk food” for fundraisers.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) has issued a report on steps to improve the nutritional value of food in schools. Many schools now have wellness boards that support improvements in school breakfast, lunch and vending machine offerings in accordance with the IOM recommendations. Yet it’s not clear how many also follow the IOM recommendation to set standards for fundraising to offer only non-food products and foods that meet the nutrition standards for healthy school meals.

Some people believe that these restrictions go overboard because bake sales and other fundraisers occur too occasionally to make a difference. However, others say fundraisers add to an already excessive amount of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods available to children and teens, especially in the extra large portions commonly sold. Furthermore, many educators say that these sales contradict and undermine lessons about the importance of healthy eating. They suggest that fundraising with healthy foods and non-food items puts into practice healthy lifestyle messages.

One of the CDC’s Ten Key Strategies to Prevent Obesity in our schools is to ensure that students have appealing, healthy choices in foods and beverages offered outside of the school meals program. Healthful foods that could be offered in fundraisers include fresh fruit, nuts, trail mix and popcorn.

Just as important, many state health departments and health professional organizations have developed lists of non-food and healthy food fundraisers that are readily available on the Internet. Students might sell gift wrap and greeting cards, magazine subscriptions, plants, garden seeds and bulbs, holiday wreaths and decorations, calendars, and school spirit mugs and T-shirts. A variety of charity events can also make excellent fundraisers, some with potential side benefits promoting physical activity. These include walk-a-thons, bike-a-thons, fun runs, jump rope contests and read-a-thons, as well as services such as recycling, gift-wrapping and singing telegrams. Other events may offer more family or community involvement, such as rummage sales, holiday carnivals, talent shows, craft sales, family bingo nights and adult dances.

There is no single answer to the epidemic of obesity among youth and adults. But the CDC is calling on all of us in our communities to view fundraisers with the long-term picture in mind: “Use fundraising activities and rewards that support student health.”


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