Danville mom takes on PTA over 'junk food fundraising'
It started with a photograph. The image was attention-grabbing: thick buttery cookies on the front page of a glossy brochure.
The booklet, sent home in the backpack of every student at Rancho Romero Elementary school, was part of an annual Parent Teacher Association cookie dough fundraiser. And it arrived at Christine Lane's house for the first time on a crisp fall day about a year ago.
Her daughter Ainsley - then an energetic kindergartener - came home, pamphlet in hand, pumped up to sell. Students were told to tout the frozen dough, cheesecake and brownies at school and that high sellers would get exciting prizes, like toys and class parties. So Ainsley was thrilled.
Lane, an Alamo fitness instructor, took one look at the photograph and started to ask questions.
With childhood obesity rates soaring nationally, she figured there had to be a better way to raise money than through "junk food fundraising."
She'd seen her father battle disheartening health problems due to type 2 diabetes and couldn't bear the idea of kids buying and selling such high fat food, with almost no nutritional value.
"The school faculty are role models to our kids. When they take it upon themselves to ask my child to sell junk food, it's a problem," Lane said.
Back then, she approached the PTA, pushing for a more healthy fundraiser. And she hit a brick wall.
"It's been kind of strange. These people have been very resistant to change," she said.
Members of the PTA board explained that the cookie dough fundraiser, a 10-year tradition, was the school's most successful fundraising event and was an asset. It earned $10,000 for the kids last year alone and, ultimately, did more good than bad, they said.
"On one hand, it works. It's in place. Why change it?" said PTA member Wendy Thomas, explaining the mindset of some board members.
Fit or quit: the ultimatum
This year, when it came time to confront the PTA about a fundraiser change, Lane was ready.
She prepared a presentation and volunteered to spearhead a walk-a-thon, with the working title, "The Student Body Campaign." She pitched it for fall 2008. And she made a promise. If it didn't raise at least $10,000, she and her husband would write a check for the difference.
She presented her plan to the PTA this month.
"It was like entering the lion's den," Lane said.
At the PTA meeting, 12 mothers, some clad in sweatpants, others in power suits, sat in a circle in the school's multipurpose room. A lingering tension was in the air - in some women's voices and others' facial expressions.
November is national PTA healthy lifestyles month, and Lane told them it's a little too ironic that PTA is advocating junk food and promising pizza parties for high sellers.
Initially, the PTA members said she should do her healthy fundraiser in the spring and that they would keep selling the cookies in the fall.
But Lane insisted they were missing the point. To instill a healthy mentality in kids early on, you have to get rid of junk food fundraising all together, she said.
So she gave what PTA members called an ultimatum. In order for her to do the walk-a-thon, they had to stop selling cookie dough completely.
"I was surprised by the tension," Thomas said. "I think when you have people come to the meeting to present an idea, the presenter doesn't usually ask for a decision right then and there. People get a little uncomfortable with that."
When it came time to vote on the fundraiser for fall 2008, however, Lane's proposal passed with a vast majority. She was prepared. She pitched it ahead of time. And she had plenty of background in fundraising for other causes.
"Motion passed. Here we go. Here's our rollercoaster," said Janet Nunan, vice president for the PTA.
Big kids, big trouble
Nationally, the number of obese children has tripled in the last 30 years. The epidemic is one of the nation's leading health threats, as more youths than ever are developing adult health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Today, about 12 million kids are overweight in the U.S., with another 12 million at risk. Increased fast food marketing geared toward children, coupled with the popularity of sedentary activities - like video games and the Internet -have only accelerated the problem. And researchers predict this might be the first generation to live shorter lives than their parents.
A 2002 report from the California Center for Public Health showed that 26.5 percent of children in the state are overweight. Taking into consideration California's high population, the report was telling. It illustrated California was home to the most overweight kids in the country.
In 2004, the Childhood Nutrition Act put more responsibility on schools to advocate healthy lifestyles for kids. Now, schools with federally funded meals are required to have policies that outline a healthy school environment, such as offering fresher options in the cafeteria.
"It should be taught at home, but it needs to be reinforced at schools," Lane said.
Childhood obesity has been linked to socio-economics, with studies showing that the poorer the family and the less open space in their community, the more likely the child is to become obese.
That being said, some Alamo PTA parents felt the issue isn't as pressing in the Rancho Romero community - one that's well-off and semi-rural.
If you maintain a balance of fatty foods with healthy food and exercise, then selling and buying a little cookie dough is not the end of the world, some parents said.
"You help your kids make choices. If you work hard with them, it won't be an issue, as long as you provide a healthy supplement," Thomas said.
Ultimately, though, it's the mentality and habits of the kids that Lane says she is most concerned about. She wants them to learn early on that eating right and being active makes you feel good. She hopes her walk-a-thon will do just that.
If you wait too long, it can be "like swimming upstream," she said.
"Our students get a lot because they are in an affluent area, but none of that matters if they're not in good health," she said.
Here in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District, grade schools tend to rely on auctions for fundraisers. Some of the larger high schools raise from $80,000 to a $250,000 per year, said Terry Koehne, spokesman for the district.
Parent Teacher Association members from Tassajara Hills Elementary and Vista Grande Elementary said they have a carnival in the fall and an art auction in the spring.
A Tassajara Hills PTA board member noted that it is very steeped in tradition and the fundraising hadn't changed in at least nine years.
But some things are changing. Now, more than ever, PTAs in the district are taking on social issues affecting children, Koehne said. In general, they are leaving the fundraising to the school's education fund committees.
"PTAs have become more focused on child advocacy in the last five years .... They are very involved legislatively," he said.
Even with the trend, Lane said she felt the board was less concerned with the social issue and more with how much money it would bring in.
"Overall they weren't getting a sense for why I was there. It shouldn't be about the bottom line ... about the money and the ease," she said.
The president of the Rancho Romero PTA, Mona Tom, said she fully supports the new method of fundraising, even considering how lucrative the cookie dough sales have been in the past.
"I don't have any hesitation," Tom said. "Anything that's healthier is better, right?"
When the "The Student Body" walk-a-thon begins next fall, parents will make pledges and the event will take place on the school's field, if all goes as planned. The Rancho Romero Education Fund will be taking on the project.
Lane hopes to get vendors to provide fresh and tasty snacks on site. Educational games to get the students excited about healthy living and recycling will be featured as well.
"I'm not the only one who is saying this. There's a national epidemic...I'm just the only one who chose to speak," Lane said.