03/03/2015 05:00 EST | Updated 05/02/2015 05:59 EDT

Virginia lawmakers say bake sale ban takes the cake

Some Virginia lawmakers recently became so fed up – so to speak – with school nutrition rules preventing the sale of sugary, fatty treats that they embarked on what turned out to be a controversial mission: bringing back bake sales.

The effort prompted debate in the state's legislature about childhood obesity, its causes and how to combat it — as well as government overreach and parental responsibility.

Federal regulations brought in under President Barack Obama in 2010 and championed by his wife, Michelle, prohibit the sale on school grounds of foods that don't comply with breakfast and lunch program nutrition standards. That's made it difficult to sell cookies and cupcakes to raise money for school clubs, activities and events.

Bake sales have been essentially banned, unless they are held after school hours, on weekends or off school grounds.

If held during school hours, the goods have to meet the "Smart Snack" standards. But granola bars and fruit cups just don't rake in the same kind of cash as brownies and apple pie, and it has motivated some lawmakers – not just in Virginia – to try and change the rules.

Childhood obesity a concern

Schools can get around the federal regulations if the state's board of education steps in and gives permission for certain foods to be sold. Some states across the U.S. have done that, including Georgia, Oklahoma and South Carolina – but not Virginia.

In the absence of action fromVirginia's board, a few representatives in the state legislature decided they would take up the cause.

"The effective prohibition [of bake sales] is an egregious example of federal overreach and the board's decision to not proactively allow these school fundraisers simply doesn't make sense," Speaker of the House of Delegates William J. Howell said in a statement.

A bill introduced at Howell's request that would give schools more freedom to sell whatever goodies they want to raise funds made it through the House of Delegates with little trouble, but once it got to the Senate, it was met with resistance.

"I would ask the body to vote No rather than tell schools how many days they have to sell Ho-Hos," one senator said. Another who was against it said it would "turn the clock back" on progress made in fighting childhood obesity.

If parents are OK with their kids eating cupcakes and donuts, they can put them in their lunchbox, but the school itself should not be selling them, another senator argued. 

There are other ways to raise funds for extracurricular activities and school events, opponents said, and one senator spoke of the challenges teaches face when students are on a "sugar high."

Some in favour of the bill said regulations have gone way too far.

"We don't trust children any more, we don't trust them to eat the right foods, we don't trust the parents, so we now regulate it," Senator William Stanley said.

School food tastes 'terrible'

Others argued that the funds derived from bake sales are much-needed, and, come on, we had these treats when we were growing up – our kids should have them, too.

Stanley added that the cafeteria food offered through schools tastes "terrible," and dared his colleagues to go to a school and try one of the meals.

"Let them have this," he said of the bake sales. "They need it financially and gosh darn it, it probably tastes better," Stanley said.

The bill, allowing schools to hold up to 30 junk food fundraisers a year, passed and will now go to Governor Terry McAuliffe.

But it's not a sure thing that he will sign it. His wife, Dorothy, has made child nutrition a focus of her work as first lady of the state.

"He will evaluate that bill carefully when it reaches his desk," a spokesman for the governor said in an email.

Those looking to bring back bake sales are hoping to get a passing grade from McAuliffe, but those against it say it's clear why he should reject it.

"For the life of me," said Senator Richard Saslaw, "I can't see why you would want to vote for this bill unless you believe, quite frankly, that America's just not fat enough."