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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JOANNA WEISS

Why not let the bake sale crumble?

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Defenders of the school bake sale, rejoice! The Massachusetts Legislature is stepping in to save your homemade lemon squares from the horrors of government overreach!

That was the triumphant news from Beacon Hill this week, after a loud and predictable brouhaha over rules handed down by the state Department of Public Health. Announce a ban on anything — sugary sodas, inefficient light bulbs — and the talk-radio hordes will go wild. And depriving innocent children of the chance to make money selling cupcakes? It’s heresy. The Boston Herald collected dismissive quotes from TV’s “Cake Boss.” Anderson Cooper, arbiter of all things good and right, put the bake sale ban on his “RidicuList.” Now, state lawmakers have cooked up a scheme to allow towns to exempt themselves.

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So goes another round in the battle over obesity: a problem, not of concept, but execution. The health department was, in fact, following a state law, passed in 2010 to address the sorry fact that a third of Massachusetts schoolchildren are overweight or obese. The law called on the department to regulate foods that “compete” with federally subsidized school breakfasts and lunches. So health officials came up with some rules, including restrictions on the use of Fryolators. (Anderson? Any objections?) They set nutritional standards, not just for bake sales, but for snacks in the lunchroom and items in vending machines.

And they issued a guidebook for schools, filled with attractive pictures of fruits and vegetables, and references to a list of approved snacks from the John C. Stalker Institute of Food and Nutrition at Framingham State University: graham crackers, goldfish crackers, a host of oatmeal bars. Granted, “Glenny’s Brown Rice Marshmallow Treats” sound a little dubious, but there's no guaranteeing the quality of Billy’s mom’s brownies, either.

In response to the uproar, health officials stressed that they’re not trying to dictate what goes in kids’ lunchboxes, or tell parents what to feed their children, or regulate bake sales held after school hours. Alas, this reveals their rule for what it is: a miniscule Band-Aid on a problem that’s extraordinarily diffuse. The obesity crisis owes, in part, to video games, unsafe streets (or the perception thereof), and irresistable displays of carbohydrates in grocery stores. A leading expert on child obesity once told me that his top public policy priority is eliminating federal subsidies for soybeans, wheat, and rice. Scapegoating the bake sale seems like an act of futility, because it is.

On the other hand, a bake sale is not sacred. Some childhood traditions deserve to be remembered in sepia light, and some do not; I am not wistful about the decline of dodge ball or the fact that schools no longer tolerate kids stuffing other kids into lockers. And I suspect there are plenty of overworked, overstressed mothers who would love to be relieved of the obligation to bake three dozen cookies on a weeknight.

Coming up with fundraising alternatives — particularly ones that involve children moving, instead of eating — isn’t such a tragedy. My daughter once had a soccer coach who declared that kids don’t run enough. He sent them on laps around the field at every practice, and they loved it. The fact is, elementary school kids need to move. They don’t move enough over the course of a long day. And if schools offered them a chance to run, or walk, or skip, they’d take to it like ... a kid on a cupcake.

The problem comes when officials manage to make health look like a punishment: a matter of deprivation, not opportunity. What if the war on bake sales hadn’t been an outright ban, but a stealth effort — if the health department had quietly gathered school officials and pitched them on alternatives?

In Billerica, one elementary school ditched bake sales two years ago, in favor of a walk-a-thon to raise money for extracurricular activities. It was a schoolwide effort, said Carole Butze, the school district’s director of nursing. The music department composed boosterish songs. The art department put up banners along the route. The kids were thrilled. And the sponsorships brought in $12,000 last year and $10,000 this year — about double what bake sales used to earn. Take that, cupcakes. You are weak.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.

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