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Schools paying price for food bans

Published on: May 01, 2005

Many parents cringe at the idea of having sugar-laden soda pop and candy and fatty potato chips readily available in the hallways of their child's middle or high school. But the reality is, vending machine commissions and student store profits are often the major sources of revenue for student activities.

Recognizing rapidly rising rates of childhood obesity, the Washington State Legislature last year passed a bill mandating that school districts create nutrition guidelines for the food they sell on campus through vending machines and school stores.

To meet the Legislature's Aug. 1, 2005 deadline, many Puget Sound school districts are making drastic changes that mainly affect high schools and middle schools, banning the sale of pop and sport drinks in vending machines and removing candy and chips from student stores.

In September 2004, the Seattle School Board unanimously approved a set of comprehensive nutrition guidelines that are among the strongest in the nation, including a policy that prohibits the sale of junk food and pop on all Seattle School District campuses.

"The Seattle School Board has taken a critical step toward creating a school environment that supports and promotes healthy eating behaviors," says Shelley Curtis, Nutrition Outreach and Food Policy Manager for Seattle-based Children's Alliance, a non-profit advocacy organization for children and families. "Hopefully their policies will serve as a model for other districts across the state."

Many schools making healthy changes to meet the new nutrition policies are now also scrambling to find other ways raise funds. Curtis says that schools can meet their funding goals while also meeting the new nutrition guidelines, but parents and educators will have to start "thinking outside the box" and be more creative about fundraising activities. And implementing the changes, she says, will take time and may receive initial resistance from the students.

In May of 2004, the Olympia School District adopted a new school nutrition policy that banned the sale of candy and pop at Olympia's middle schools. The policy took effect this school year. Michael Cimino, principal of the Jefferson Middle School in Olympia, says while the policy had the best intentions, the financial ramifications were significant. Profits at Jefferson's student store were "wiped out" and vending machine commissions dropped.

Both the student store and the commissions from vending machines were major sources of funding for student activities, says Cimino -- everything from "text books to benches to uniforms." Cimino says his school is making adjustments, including holding "test marketing" sessions with the students to determine what foods that meet the new guidelines will make it into the student store. But he points out that the profit margin on a now- banned candy bar purchased at Costco for 35 cents and sold at the store for 75 cents is much higher than an "approved" piece of jerky that must be purchased for 85 cents and sold for a dollar.

Jeff Moore, Director of Finance and Budgets for the Everett School District, reports that recent changes to the nutrition guidelines have reduced funding for student activities in his district as well. Prior to the start of this school year, all pop was removed from all district vending machines. Now the machines provide only water and 100-percent juice products.

Commissions from pop machines -- averaging $24,000-$35,000 per high school annually -- provided funds for student activities and athletics as determined by each school's Associated Student Body (ASB). Since this year's removal of pop, commissions are down by as much as 80 percent, Moore says.

At West Seattle High School, teacher Shirley Linvog is chair of the business department and DECA club adviser. In this year of transition to the new nutritional guidelines, profits from the DECA-run student store, which supports leadership opportunities for DECA students, have definitely been reduced. Initially, she says, the students who run the store looked at the new nutrition guidelines and said, "We can't do this." But she coached them to use their problem-solving abilities, and over time they are figuring out what they can sell that meets the new guidelines and -- equally important -- that students will buy.

"We've been able to find candies that are fruit-based and items for niche markets such as nuts and sunflower seeds," Linvog says. Her students have learned about pricing, discovering that "Luna bars would not sell at $1.50" and expanded their product line to offer items like fruit smoothies.

While Linvog is proud of the students' accomplishments, she acknowledges their store's healthy offerings often can't compete with the temptations of several fast food places surrounding campus. As soon as the lunch bell rings, she says, "Students stream across the parking lot toward McDonald's and Starbucks like a line of ants."

Michael Cimano also sees shortcomings in the new policies, and is frustrated that much of what was banned by the policy is still showing up at his school -- in the lunches Jefferson's students bring. His school is working on teaching students to make healthier choices but ultimately, he says, "kids don't get fat at school" -- lifestyle choices, lack of exercise and poor eating habits at home have far more influence.

Shelley Curtis acknowledges the challenges. "There is no single factor that is causing kids to become overweight and we clearly need to make changes at all levels and in all environments," she says. "However, schools remain a critical place to educate kids about healthy lifestyles and support healthy behaviors."

Kathleen Miller is a Sammamish-based freelance writer and mother of two.

Creativity key to health-conscious fundraising

Some area schools are already meeting the challenge of complying with district nutritional policies though creative sales that don't involve selling cookie dough or candy bars.

PCC Natural Markets offers a scrip program where schools can purchase gift certificates for 95 percent of their face value, then sell them as a fundraiser at full price and keep the 5-percent difference. Diana Crane, PCC's Community and Public Relations Manager, says that last year the program raised more than $56,000 for the 98 schools and non profits that participated in the program. And she points out, "everyone has to buy groceries."

Kirkland's Environmental & Adventure School (EAS) Middle School has used the Chinook Book to help raise funds for 55 students to go on traveling adventures. The Chinook Book is a like an Entertainment book for the healthy lifestyle crowd. It features coupons for a variety of stores, attractions, restaurants and activities including yoga, Pilates and kayak and bike rentals. Depending on their level of sales, schools can keep up to 50 percent of the book's $20 face value.

According to EAS teacher Eileen McMakin, "We chose Chinook Books as the fundraiser of choice because the stores that are sponsored in the coupon book generally have environmentally friendly and healthy products." Marion Mehrer's 13-year-old son Riley sold the book to help fund a trip for himself and 17 other EAS students to Baja, Mexico last spring. Riley sold the book outside Larry's Markets, one of the book's sponsors.

Children's Alliance Nutrition Outreach and Food Policy Manager Shelley Curtis says that school fundraising a new way, as the Mehrer family did for Riley's trip, will become more popular in time. "Selling candy and junk food was easy and the new ways will require more effort, but the end result will be healthier kids."


  • Northwest Healthy Foods Expo
    May 6, 2005 10 a.m.-5 p.m., The Pavillion at the Puyallup Fair. Sponsored by Kids First, this event will offer the opportunities for school food buyers to connect to health food suppliers.
  • PCC Scrip Program
    For a fundraising application or more information, contact the PCC Community Relations Department at 206-547-1222 or email
  • Stonyfield Farms
    Stonyfield Farms, the world's largest organic yogurt maker, provides healthy vending machines to schools filled with organic and natural snacks. A portion of the profits can go to fund student activities. More information at
  • Chinook Book
    For a phone consultation to begin the sales process, call 206-281-1122. Sign up your school by June 30 to fundraise with the Chinook Book this fall and receive a guaranteed 50-percent return. The new edition will be available in late August 2005.
    This web portal makes a donation to your school every time a parent begins Internet shopping trips through the site. Pre-registration of your school is required. More information at
  • USDA Make it Happen -- School Nutrition Success Stories
    This online site shares success stories from 32 schools that have improved the nutritional value of food sold on school campuses while meeting funding goals.

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