Cookie tradition crumbles with new school snack rules

Lauren Abdel-Razzaq
The Detroit News
  • For more than 20 years, Union cookies helped raise money for student programs and athletics.
  • Federal Smart Snacks in School rules forced the school to replace the traditional cookie.
  • The new cookie is 110 calories, made from whole grains and a tough sell for students
  • The new federal school snack rules went into affect July 1, and many districts have complained.

There was a time when Pat Gast could easily sell 200 or 300 fresh baked cookies a day during lunchtime at the Grosse Pointe North Student Union.

A staple at the high school for more than 20 years, Union cookies helped raise money for student programs and athletics. No more. They've been sliced from the menu by federal school lunch rules and replaced by a new, whole grain-compliant cookie.

"It was a tradition," said Gast, the student activities director who has run the Student Union for two decades. "But there is no choice anymore."

Both cookies are made by the same company and shipped frozen to the school. Both cost 50 cents each. But now, Gast might sell 30 of the compliant cookies each day, which has taken a toll on Student Union funds.

"That has cramped our style quite a bit," said Gast.

If the school went back to selling the sugary, chocolatey, melt-in-your-mouth originals, it would put federal and state food program funds at risk.

The cookies, however, will make a brief return for North's homecoming dance Saturday, permissible because they are being sold at a weekend event, which, like after-school sporting events and theater productions, aren't required to follow the strict federal rules.

On Wednesday, Gast began baking the 2,000 cookies planned for the dance, and during the week, students walking by the Union have been sticking their heads inside, searching for that familiar smell.

"People are buying tickets to homecoming just to get the cookies," she said. "I hope I can keep up with the demand."

The changes in school lunches and snacks are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. First lady Michelle Obama has touted the act as a way to reduce the obesity epidemic among children in the U.S. while providing nutrition for those without food at home.

The Smart Snacks in School portion of the program began July 1, restricting items schools can sell in their stores and vending machines. The restrictions even extend to fundraisers taking place during or immediately after school hours.

Some school districts haven't had any trouble, but others have complained the new options don't provide enough choice for students and can encourage waste when students are forced to take fruits, vegetables and whole grain foods they don't like.

Federal regulations for school snacks emphasize low calorie count and high whole grain, fruit and vegetable content.

"The whole idea is to create a healthy school environment," said Howard Leikert, supervisor of nutrition programs for the Michigan Department of Education. "We need to give it some time. Change is always difficult."

Gast estimates the snack changes at Grosse Pointe North have resulted in a loss of $25,000 in sales at the Student Union and school store, and through fundraisers, money that goes to student groups to help fund charities and offset the cost of school events. The school district gets about $100,000 annually from state and federal funds for breakfast and lunch programs.

So, for the foreseeable future, Union cookies will be a fond memory.

The smell of baking cookies would greet freshmen on their first day of school. And since their inception, every senior speaker has referenced them in graduation speeches.

"It's something you looked forward to and now it's just gone," said junior Anu Subramaniam, 15. "The freshmen will never know those cookies. You lose a sense of school pride when you take them away."

Schools across the state participating in the school breakfast and lunch programs must comply to receive federal and state dollars. But some school officials say a better balance needs to be achieved between what students like and what is healthy for them.

"It started out in the right direction. We all want better for the students," said Karen Bissett, nutrition services director for Oxford Schools. "Everything can look good on paper, but when it comes to serving the students, until it is put into practice, you can't tell how it's going to work out."

More Oxford students are throwing away fresh fruit and vegetables they are required to take with their meals, Bissett said. Whole grain bagels have been a disaster and whole grain macaroni and cheese has also been a hard sell.

Not everybody is a whole-grain cookie hater.

Janet Allen, food supervisor for Walled Lake Schools, said her district has been making gradual changes in snacks for five years. Its whole grain cookie is a big hit with students.

"The kids love it," she said. "They don't know the difference."

Schools do have options with vendors, which foods to serve and which to stock on school store shelves.

But the number of options has diminished overall, which has been difficult, said Brian Levinson, the teacher whose marketing students run the school store at Grosse Pointe North.

He can no longer sell Gatorade or other sports drinks to student athletes. The school never sold pop, but now, in an attempt to make up for lost money and provide more choices, Levinson said they have started to stock diet pop.

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