The Illinois State Board of Education may try to pick a food fight over new federal rules that could limit the traditional school bake sale fundraiser.
The board is looking into ways to make exceptions to the federal Smart Snacks in Schools nutrition standards, which put restrictions on food that can be sold during the school day, including treats sold to raise money for school or class events.
Healthy snacks like nuts, vegetables with hummus dip and dried fruits would still be allowed, but sugary indulgences like brownies, cupcakes and cookies likely wouldn't.
The restrictions would extend until 30 minutes after the school day ends, so food sold at some after-school or weekend events wouldn't be affected.
Downers Grove District 99 school board member Mike Davenport said he wishes the federal government would leave decisions like this to local schools.
"It sounds to me like another example of our government overregulation and Big Brother trying to tell us what to do all the time," Davenport said.
But many national health leaders have praised the plan as they try to fight childhood obesity in the U.S. As of 2010, 17 percent of children ages 2 to 19 were overweight nationwide, and 15.5 percent of children in Illinois under age 18 were overweight, with 11.9 percent considered obese, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"The healthier options made possible by these new guidelines will encourage children to eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and will support parents' efforts to make sure their kids get the nutrition they need away from home," Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, said when the federal rules were approved.
Gery Chico, chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education, said the rules say unhealthy foods can't be sold during the school day, but students can bring them into class and give them away on a day such as a birthday, which he found inconsistent.
"That is whatever the heck you wanna put in it. Right, load it up. Butter, fat, whatever you want. That's OK," Chico said. "We can do that, 17, 18 times a year. Every kid gets a big piece, a generous piece. That's OK."
The state board's role is to decide how many exceptions Illinois schools can make to the new rule; it has until July 1 to outline those exemptions. If no exemptions are made, then schools have to follow the federal nutrition standards to the letter. The board next meets Feb. 19.
Vicki Gazdacka, a chiropractor and owner of Verdant Health Inc. in Elmhurst, said the restrictions are a step in the right direction but don't leave her feeling great about what the government is letting kids eat in school.
"These guidelines basically open the school doors to low-fat diet foods like low-fat ice cream and yogurt, whole grain cereals and crackers, as well as diet sodas and diet energy drinks," Gazdacka said. "Unfortunately this does not take into account the effect of artificial sugars, food dyes, colors, preservatives and additives on the brains and bodies of children."
She said the guidelines set up by the Smart Snacks program also do not encourage children to eat whole, real foods. Rather, she said it allows for large manufacturers of packaged foods to change around their recipes to meet federal requirements.
"I would rather see students bringing in homemade foods than eating processed food out of a bag," Gazdacka said.
The new rules will take effect beginning in the 2014-15 school year.