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Pinellas schools panel recommends taking the sweets out of fundraisers

When parents and kids want to raise money for schools, they often sell the fattening but popular treats that have raked in money for years: chocolate bars, M&Ms and tubs of delicious cookie dough.

And then in the classroom, what do these same kids learn? The importance of healthy eating.

A Pinellas County Schools health committee recently decided this didn't make sense. In an ambitious proposal, the committee strongly urged schools and PTAs to focus only on healthy fundraising alternatives, such as selling Florida citrus, or organizing walk-a-thons, or maybe even creating farmers markets.

In other words, the fundraising power of cookie dough was pitted against the healthy goodness of carrots and citrus.

For now, cookie dough seems to have won.

Pinellas schools superintendent Mike Grego recently clarified to his staff that the healthy fundraising guidelines are just that, guidelines. If a school considers the healthier options, but then decides selling chocolates is best for that school, it is allowed to do so.

That news is a relief to some school volunteers, who had thought the treats were being phased out by next year.

The issue is similar to the debate about whether Cokes and Pepsis should be sold in school vending machines or whether the mayor of New York City went overboard with his campaign against supersized soft drinks.

It's public health versus personal responsibility. And when it comes to the school fundraisers, it's also a difference of thousands of dollars. At Plumb Elementary School in Clearwater, for example, volunteers this year sold $68,000 worth of cookie dough and other treats. Forty percent — more than $27,000 — goes to extras at the school, such as smartboards, which are digital, touch-sensitive white boards for classroom use.

County out front

Even though it's just a guideline and not a requirement, Pinellas' interest in healthy fundraisers appears to be blazing a trail in the Tampa Bay area. There is no similar proposal in the Hillsborough schools.

The healthy fundraising approach was outlined to Pinellas PTA leaders at a workshop in September. The concept was previously approved by the Pinellas Schools Health Advisory Committee, following national recommendations for attacking childhood obesity.

Peggy Johns, health education specialist for the Pinellas schools, said the guidelines are designed to avoid sending a mixed message to children.

Michelle Alfred is a member of the health advisory committee, and also vice president for leadership on the Pinellas Council of PTAs. She said she understood that the guidelines were voluntary this year, but schools were strongly encouraged to adopt them next year.

Some discontent

Amy Christensen attended the September training, and thought the whole concept was "terrible." She said it's not the school system's business "to tell the parents what they can and cannot buy and give to their children."

But then, she has a unique perspective. In addition to being a mom with two children in Pinellas schools, she's also a district manager for Leading Edge Fundraising. The company not only sells cookie dough for school fundraisers, but also "gourmet red velvet cake roll," chocolate lava cakes, pretzel dogs, three-meat French bread pizzas, and a turtle cheesecake described in a brochure as "decadent, decadent, decadent!"

She said she interpreted the training to mean all schools would need to adopt the healthy fundraising ideals next year.

Johns, the school health specialist who gave the training, said in an interview that "healthy fundraising would be a goal that we were trying to encourage schools to work on." But she said it has always been clear that these are not official policy.

"These are guidelines that I certainly support," Grego said. But, he added, "they still remain guidelines." He allowed as how "there might have been some confusion that this was a board policy," but noted the School Board never has voted on the guidelines.

Was he was trying to tone down the recommendations, given the rumblings of discontent that have started?

"No one's trying to back away from something," he said.

The point is that these are recommendations that schools and parents may accept or reject.

At Plumb Elementary, principal Seymour Brown said he's happy the PTA can use the cookie dough fundraiser. He said the school already follows many health guidelines for students, including allowing sweet treats during only three celebrations per year — winter holidays, Valentine's Day and end-of-school.

But when it comes to the fundraising, Brown said, "you're examining cutting off a resource that for many schools are the only resources where we can purchase such things as technology. It's a very sensitive topic."

Then again, this kind of fundraising is not much of an issue at some schools.

"We don't sell the cookie dough or the little chocolates," explained Angelean Bing, principal at Skycrest Elementary School in Clearwater.

The majority of students there are on free and reduced lunches, and their families simply can't afford to buy pricey cookie dough at fundraisers.

"We're too poor," she said.

Contact Curtis Krueger at ckrueger@tampabay.com.

Pinellas schools panel recommends taking the sweets out of fundraisers 11/03/12 [Last modified: Saturday, November 3, 2012 11:57pm]
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