By Douglas Moser
News about the possible end of school bake sales upset enough parents and school officials that the Massachusetts House yesterday served up a bill affirming local power to decide whether to sell cupcakes and other junk food at school functions.
Legislators and some school committees accused the state Department of Public Health of trying to extend new statutory regulations, which banish sugary snacks from public schools, beyond the school day to cover all hours. That would effectively ban bake sales and possibly even concession stand food at school functions.
The department said there was never any requirement for school districts to adhere to the regulations after school hours and that bake sales decisions were always to be a made locally, blaming a "misleading" news story from earlier in the week.
"If a school district wants to make it 24/7 they may do so, but they are not required to," said John Jacob, a spokesman for the Department of Public Health.
The Department of Public Health in December published a guide book to help school districts comply with new nutrition regulations written into state law in 2010. "School districts may choose, and are encouraged, to go beyond the minimum standards to establish local policies that apply the food and beverage standards at all times to promote a healthy school environment throughout the entire day," the guide book stated.
Jacob said the department did not create a regulation mandating school districts adhere to the standards beyond what is already set in the state law.
"News reports say that state officials are pushing (for a total ban), and that makes it sound like we're agitating the Legislature. We are absolutely not," Jacob said.
The fast-developing story led to quick action by the Legislature. A report in the Boston Herald Monday whipped up a controversy about government overreach and nanny state interference, and the story of Massachusetts supposedly banning bake sales has spread to news outlets around the country.
Yesterday, the House unanimously approved a Republican-sponsored bill that bakes into the law local school districts' rights to sell sweets for boosters and in concession stands during sports events. It allows local school committees to ban extracurricular junk food if they choose.
"What everyone thought was taking place is absolute overreach that DPH has to regulate bake sales," Rep. Jim Lyons, R-Andover.
When asked, Lyons and Rep. Paul Adams, R-Andover, said they could not immediately find the regulation that would have banned bake sales, but stressed that yesterday's vote made sure local school districts could choose for themselves.
"It'll allow local school districts to decide whether to implement the rule (banning junk food after school hours)," Adams said.
Rep. David Torrisi, D-North Andover, said he did not know whether the bake sale ban was true, but said the law would prevent the Department of Public Health from ever moving in that direction on its own.
"We were making sure school lunches and vending machines, when they served meals during school day, that what they served had proper nutritional value," Torrisi said of the intent of the 2010 law. "If there was an oversight, we corrected it before it came into effect. But I find it hard to believe that DPH was going to send the police to North Andover high school to end bake sales."
The law, called an Act Relative to School Nutrition and signed on July 30, 2010, set new standards for the kinds of food that can be served in Massachusetts public schools. It prohibited any beverage besides water, juice and milk to be served a la carte or in vending machines. It also restricted the amount of calories, sodium, sugar and fat that can be in a given item offered at a school.
The rules do not apply to federal meal programs, such as the School Breakfast Program. They are scheduled to go into effect Aug. 1.
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