Will this federal law end school bake sales?

School leaders have long counted on bake sales as an easy way to raise money. Red velvet cupcakes and milk chocolate bars have fueled many a road trip for debate teams and cheerleading squads.

But now, some states are responding to a new federal law by cracking down on the sugary binges that many bake sales offer. Treats that are too sweet may not pass muster, leaving some schools already searching for ways to raise money that don't involve chocolate sprinkles.

At issue are standards in the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act for all food and beverages sold during the school day. For states acting in accordance with the law, fundraisers during school hours will be held to a healthier standard as well.

This doesn't mean bake sales are disappearing completely. Individual states can create exemptions to the rule, and many have done so. In Tennessee, for example, officials decided schools can have 30 days of sugary treat-filled bake sales and other food-related fundraisers during the year. Other states are more restrictive. Idaho will only allow 10 days of fundraisers with candy and other food that doesn't meet federal health standards, and Illinois will permit nine.

Dozens of states are not allowing any exemptions at all, however, which means all bake sale food must meet federal requirements for nutrition. What does that mean? The U.S. Department of Agriculture put out a chart with some examples, The Wall Street Journal reports. Not allowed: Six chocolate sandwich cookies at 286 calories, a large doughnut at 242 calories and a 1.6 ounce chocolate bar with 35 calories.

Examples of permitted foods include a 4 ounce fruit cup. Carrot and celery sticks would presumably make the cut as well, but good luck getting kids to pony up money for those.

The USDA is emphasizing that it's up to states to choose which path to take on this issue. "States have full authority to make policies on fundraisers and bake sales that work for them," spokesman Cullen Schwarz said in an emailed statement. "USDA is continuing to reach out to states to make sure they know they can determine what standards should be set for fundraisers at schools, and that they are free to set that policy at any time."

So now, some schools are avoiding food fundraisers altogether in favor of gift-wrap sales and bowl-a-thons, The Journal reports.

The issue is drawing criticism and references to the food police and a government nanny state. "Betty Crocker is now a terrorist," wrote one Wall Street Journal commenter. "Silly me, I thought parents and school boards should decide these things," added another.

Advocates of the law, which include Michelle Obama, counter that child obesity has more than quadrupled over the last few decades. Now, some 18 percent of children age 6-11 are obese, which could lead to further health problems over the course of their lives.

  • Kim Peterson

    Kim Peterson is a financial journalist covering business and the economy. She has written for several online and print publications, including MSN Money and The Seattle Times.