Bring back the bake sales!
That’s one idea New York City education officials are weighing to help schools make up for the impact of steep budget cuts, according to a recent letter from Deputy Chancellor Kenita Lloyd to principals.
Education Department officials are considering relaxing a more-than-decade-old rule that restricts what food can be sold on school grounds and limits PTA bake sales with unapproved foods to once a month — a rule originally intended to cut access to unhealthy foods.
Waiving the rule would give schools “greater flexibility to conduct fundraising activities more frequently, thereby offering a vital resource in these financially stringent times,” Lloyd’s message said.
Parent leaders came to Education Department officials with the idea of relaxing the bake sale rules during an October meeting of the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Committee.
Randi Garay, a Brooklyn parent and member of the advisory committee, noted that schools were previously issued a waiver from the fundraising rules to raise money for humanitarian relief in Haiti.
“Due to the budget cuts…our schools are now in crisis,” she said. “Parent associations and parent teacher associations would like to step up.”
But the Thursday letter from Lloyd left a sour taste in the mouths of some principals.
“I did a little math,” said one Manhattan principal who spoke on the condition of anonymity. With budget cuts projected to exceed $2 billion by spring, the principal estimated, each of the city’s roughly 1,600 public schools would have to raise more than $1.3 million to offset them.
“This is a real ‘let them eat cupcakes’ kind of moment,” the principal said.
“It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard, frankly,” added a Brooklyn principal.
Education Department spokesperson Chyann Tull said, “We value the health and nutrition of our students, while welcoming the diverse perspectives of our families.” The agency is gathering feedback from principals, but no final decision has been made on if or how the rules will change, she said.
Like anything that involves PTAs, the proposal raises equity questions. Parent groups across the city’s segregated school system have wildly varying fundraising capacities, with some raising over $1,000 per student and others reporting no revenue.
“If each school is left to their own devices, the financially privileged districts continue to leverage their PTAs to bring them more,” said a third principal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Elton Dodson, PTA president at P.S. 295 in Brooklyn, said his school would likely take advantage of the additional freedom to offer more bake sales.
“A penny here, a penny there is better than nothing,” he said.
But his school community has parents with the time and resources to coordinate, stock, and staff the bake sales, and customers with enough disposable income to spend freely on the tasty treats – an advantage he acknowledged other schools may not have.
An Education Department spokesperson countered, however, that some parents suggested “that more flexibility would help schools that have historically struggled to fundraise.”
Reconsidering a longstanding rule
The bake sale regulation that Education Department officials are considering waiving dates back to 2009 — part of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s public health push to limit the availability of unhealthy foods and beverages.
The rule, which generated a healthy dose of controversy when it was introduced, limited what foods could be sold on school grounds to a pre-approved list, cutting out homemade goods like cupcakes and brownies.
Some parents and City Council members argued at the time that bake sales were a useful fundraising tool amid a previous round of budget cuts.
An amendment to the regulation issued in 2010 extended the hours that students could sell pre-approved snacks, and allowed PTAs to have one fundraiser a month with non-approved foods. Money raised by PTAs can fund school supplies, extracurricular activities, and the salaries of “supplemental” staff but can’t pay the salaries of teachers in core academic subjects.
Now, officials say they want to further relax the bake sale rules and are soliciting feedback from school leaders.
“As we navigate the challenges the possible upcoming budget constraints, it’s heartening to witness the proactive and innovative approaches our parent leaders are adopting,” Lloyd wrote. “In line with these efforts, we are currently considering an important initiative that could provide additional support to our school communities.”
Repealing rules that were meant to cut down on unhealthy foods in schools would be a curious turn for the administration of the famously health-conscious Mayor Eric Adams, who has touted his efforts to introduce vegan foods into school cafeterias.
Elena Tate, a Brooklyn parent and elementary school PTA president, said offering a few more bake sales would likely help the school’s bottom line. But she said that the concerns about limiting sugary foods that propelled the initial restrictions are still present for many parents.
“Some people do want to keep them to once a month or get rid of them” for health reasons, Tate said.
Adams announced roughly $550 million in budget cuts to the Education Department in November, and additional cuts are expected in January and later in the spring, reaching a potential total of more than $2 billion, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute. The city also reinstated a policy of clawing back money midyear from schools with enrollment shortfalls.
For schools like Dodson’s, those cuts have had real impacts. The school almost lost its music program – until the PTA ponied up $70,000 to save it, he said.
“We shouldn’t have to have three extra bake sales a month to fund our music program,” he said. “That being said … if this is what we have to do, this is what we have to do.”
Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org.