In Massachusetts government offices Thursday, the governor spoke, emergency orders were issued, and the Legislature voted. The controversy of the day: cupcakes.
Yes, cupcakes. The kerfuffle, which involved the sale of sweets in schools, proved irresistible to the national media, which prominently featured the debate on newscasts and talk shows.
Facing a rising clamor against the state’s much-bandied ban on bake sales in school and a legislative revolt, Governor Deval Patrick directed public health officials to scrap the restriction.
The fast-moving battle culminated Thursday afternoon with a statement from Patrick’s Department of Public Health, indicating that the agency would exclude classrooms and fund-raising events from strict new school nutrition rules that were to take effect Aug. 1.
The department said that it will pass emergency amendments to regulations adopted last year that curtailed the sale of sweets in schools. It said the amendments will be presented in June to the Public Health Council, the same body that approved the stringent rules last year.
“The school nutrition standards have always been about reducing childhood obesity in Massachusetts and protecting our kids from the serious long-term health impacts that obesity can cause,’’ John Auerbach, state public health commissioner, said in a statement.
“At the direction of Governor Patrick, the department will seek to remove these provisions. We hope to return the focus to how we can work together to make our schools healthy environments in which our children can thrive.’’
The statement said that the school nutrition standards will continue to apply to the primary sources of food and beverages in public schools, including all those offered as a la carte items in cafeterias and available in vending machines and snack shops, so-called competitive foods because they are alternatives to the standard school lunch. The time frame to which the standards will apply will continue to be the school day itself and the 30-minute period directly prior to and following the school day.
“Nobody’s interested in banning bake sales,’’ Patrick told reporters at the State House. “What we are interested in is student nutrition and delivering good choices.’’
Patrick’s comments came shortly before the state Senate dismantled the ban on bake sales in an amendment to a spending bill. The Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a similar budget amendment Wednesday that would allow individual cities and towns to decide whether they wish to prevent the sale of sweets during the school day.
Representative Bradford Hill, an Ipswich Republican, said he proposed junking the ban after being inundated with calls from school booster clubs, from football to the drama club, saying they desperately needed bake sale money to continue operating.
Hill said that when legislators debated and ultimately passed a bill in July 2010 directing public health officials to crack down on junk food in schools, they never dreamed the officials would declare war on beloved bake sales.
Terri L. Murphy - treasurer for the Ipswich Music, Art & Drama Association, a booster club for arts in local schools - said she e-mailed Hill when she heard about the ban earlier this week.
“It was like, ‘Oh, no, we’re going to lose about $6,000 a year,’ ’’ she said.
Murphy said the association runs concession stands at middle and high school plays and other events. During a drama festival that is held in Ipswich each year, she said, the group offers healthy foods that customers rarely purchase.
“Do we put out apples and oranges and yogurt? Yes,’’ she said. “Do they sell? No.’’
But Maddie Ribble, policy and communications director for the Massachusetts Public Health Association, said the controversy does not reflect the fact that many schools have successfully moved away from bake sales and other fund-raisers that rely on sweets.
“Our hope coming out of this is that we don’t let it distract us from the task at hand,’’ Ribble said, “which is to make kids and schools healthier.’’
Gail Koutroubas, food service director of the Andover public schools and president of the School Nutrition Association of Massachusetts, said many teams and other groups hold bake sales during lunch that undermine efforts to get students to eat healthier foods in the cafeteria.
“We are telling the students you need to eat healthy except if you want to purchase something in the corridor to support an organization, so then it’s OK if you eat unhealthy,’’ she said.