When the USDA’s Smart Snacks in school nutrition guidelines went into effect, the Jimtown Elementary PTO in Elkhart, Ind., had to scramble to save its twice-monthly Popcorn Fridays, a tradition students loved. The new federal rules require snacks or fundraising food items sold before or during school to meet specific nutritional standards.

The Jimtown PTO had recently invested funds to fix their theater-style popcorn machine, so they tried numerous recipes to fit the nutritional requirements. No recipe tasted good enough and fit the guidelines. The PTO faced a decision familiar to many parent groups these days: Change a food item to something likely to be less popular or discontinue a tradition entirely.

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In this case, the group decided on an alternative approach. Because the rules apply to items sold during the school day, they sought to give away the popcorn for free by soliciting small donations. The parent community rallied and donated funds to save Popcorn Fridays. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” says former PTO president Tylinna Maracle.

How Parent Groups Have Been Affected

For some schools, where robust wellness policies have been in place for years, the new rules don’t significantly affect PTO events or fundraisers. Prior to Smart Snacks, 39 states had some form of nutrition standards already in place. But in other districts, food rules are changing in response to Smart Snacks or new school policies, and parent groups must adjust. In addition to the new federal guidelines, many states and districts have enacted their own rules with even broader requirements.

At Monte Vista Elementary in Montclair, Calif., the PTO has changed its popcorn recipe for Family Movie Night. At other events like Family Science Night, the organization is considering selling glow sticks rather than snacks. Other schools’ PTOs are purchasing Smart Snacks-compliant products for their school stores, shifting away from food-related fundraisers, encouraging vendors to create food-free product catalogs, and selling non-food novelty items such as fun pencils.

In Lexington, S.C., Midway Elementary’s before-school fundraiser runs into trouble with the Smart Snacks time frame—the rules take effect beginning at midnight each school day and extending until half an hour after school ends. The PTO sells biscuits from Chick-fil-A once a month, raising $6,000 yearly to help purchase school basics, including staplers, paper, PE equipment, and art supplies.

“We sell the biscuits on the sidewalk outside the school during morning drop-off, and our families love it because it’s convenient,” says Anne Marie Green, who recently retired after three years as PTO president. But the sodium content of the biscuits exceeds the Smart Snacks standard. Green acknowledges that selling biscuits high in sodium to kids isn’t ideal, but she’s frustrated that this once-monthly event doesn’t meet the standards while sugary snacks can be sold at after-school sports events. The Smart Snacks rules do allow states to create some exemptions, and for now, South Carolina has one in place that allows the biscuit sales to go forward. Still, the PTO will probably drop the fundraiser eventually and look for some other type of product sale as a substitute, Green says.

A Different Mindset

Robyn Conrad Hansen, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals and an elementary principal for Arizona’s Gilbert Public School District, says she isn’t aware of complaints about the federal rules, and none have been aired at NAESP board meetings.

As a principal, she’s noticed that parents usually move forward fairly easily after new food rules are enacted—whether locally or nationally—to adopt an updated mindset. “It’s amazing how creative people can be. When one door closes, they become more creative and do other things,” says Hansen, who served as principal of Playa del Rey Elementary before becoming president of NAESP.

At Playa del Rey, which holds a Tuesday morning fun run every week, the PTA sells 4-ounce fruit smoothies for $1 that comply with the district’s wellness policy. At the school carnival, the cakewalk now features cupcakes rather than whole cakes. Hansen stopped serving doughnuts at parent meetings and offered fruit and yogurt or trail mix. The middle and high schools no longer sell sugary drinks and packaged cookies; students are adjusting and profits are holding steady, she says.

Healthy Events and Fundraisers

At University Park Elementary in Denver, Colo., healthier food policies went into effect approximately six years ago, says PTA president Jen Frenkel. Years ago, the school carnival featured a bake sale, candy prizes, sugary drinks, and other sweet foods for purchase, she says. Now, its focus has shifted from fundraiser to community-builder to celebrate wellness. A fun run has been added, and sweets have been eliminated.

At the fun run, kids may fuel up on apples and granola bars, while the carnival includes fruit, water, and a hamburger stand hosted by school dads. Game prizes have switched to small trinkets, and students host a farm stand to sell vegetables from the school garden. Parent response has been mostly positive, says Frenkel, though some do comment. “I see what they’re saying, but there are lots of ways to have fun. The kids are having fun and don’t seem to be missing candy at the carnival,” she says.

In Berkeley, Calif., a leading district on school wellness, Berkeley PTA Council president Christine Staples says school fundraising and healthy events without junk food have been policy for many years.

Some Berkeley schools also hold carnivals, but as in Denver, the goal is to build community. Although fun foods can be found—root beer floats and baked goods for carnival cakewalks, for example—the schools have gotten creative on healthy fare. Thousand Oaks Elementary’s carnival features corn on the cob, served Mexican-style with crema and chile. For the school’s science fair, the kids and parents make tortillas and serve them with fresh salsa.

An elementary school in Dallas, Texas, has taken a hard line on nutrition. Sharon Foster, a PE teacher at James Bowie Elementary, has helped the school achieve gold status with Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program, the first Texas school to do so. “At our school, the Smart Snacks rules also apply in the evening. It doesn’t make sense to educate kids on healthy eating during the day and then serve them junk food at an evening event,” Foster says. At school events, the PTA sells fruit kebabs, chicken tacos, and salad. “Our parents understand all the work we’ve put into achieving national recognition,” Foster says.

If you haven’t seen your school’s wellness policy, ask your principal or district nutrition office for a copy. If the policy has recently changed, meeting the guidelines may take some thinking. But as these groups have shown, adjusting PTO events to meet new standards doesn’t necessarily mean budgets or attendance have to take a hit. When you reevaluate food and how it fits into your event, the changes you make can often make your event even better.


A Review of the Rules

Mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued the Smart Snacks in School nutrition standards for food sold on campus during the school day. What does this mean?

All foods for sale during school hours, also known as “competitive foods,” must comply with the standards, including snacks and beverages in vending machines or school stores and foods sold at events during school hours. Foods given out for free needn’t comply. However, your district may have its own wellness policy so be sure to check.

The rules don’t affect food sales at after-school sporting events, evening fundraisers, or off campus (sales of frozen cookie dough and the like). Review your school’s policy.

The Smart Snacks “school day” runs from midnight until 30 minutes after school dismissal.

States may apply for “reasonable” exemptions for fundraising events that don’t comply. For 2015-16, four states (Arizona, Michigan, Texas, and Virginia) that previously had no exemptions now allow some noncompliant fundraisers. Find more details at http://schoolnutrition.org; under the “Legislation and Policy” tab, click “State Legislation & Policy Reports.”