Why Oh Why A Bake Sale?

Don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of my local public school. And its library. I really, truly, appreciate the efforts of all the well-intentioned parents on the PTO who strive to build a sense of community around the school with “fun” events and activities. And I absolutely love homemade brownies. Heck, I even like baking. But my blood boils just a little when my kid brings home something like this:

As the Book Sale approaches, it is time to plan the Fifth Grade Bake Sale. As you may remember, this is a part of Book Sale day which the school looks forward to hungrily, and tradition holds that MCS 5th grade students contribute the baked goodies and staff the Bake Sale.

You will be signing up in your homeroom for baking. We need a large number of cookies, brownies and cupcakes to sell. […] We are asking each fifth grader to bring in one of the following:

  • One dozen cupcakes
  • Two dozen cookies
  • One pan of brownies (or other bars)

fat-kidYeah, because if there’s one thing families of fifth graders need in their already stressful lives it’s more high-calorie goodies to bake and serve up in the guise of a good cause. Now, when the sales pitch for this thing says “[…] the Fifth Grade Bake Sale is a part of Book Sale day which the school looks forward to hungrily […]” who, exactly, is so hungry? Who is “the school”? And is “it” hungry for the cup cakes or after the money that may come out of the bake sale?

I didn’t grow up here, and it’s taken me years to fully appreciate that a commercial exchange of highly concentrated calories is a traditional American way of building community. But this whole bake sale schtick still strikes me as nuts. Unless the PTO genuinely thinks there’s a shortage of cookies and brownies in our community, why not simply ask us all for a donation equivalent to the value of the cookies we’d be baking and then bag the whole pretense of the wheeling-and-dealing? I mean, I get the book sale itself (though, as with all good community fundraisers, it appears to be an exercise necessitated to offset a funding deficit that only exists because we under-value the importance of something in our community — in this case the MCS library — and then default to propping it up with fundraisers when we realize that we can’t really do without it. Isn’t it odd how you never see the libraries fully funded and the bake sales held to fund the police cruisers or the water supply?), but I fail to see the need for the communal calorie orgy. I mean, really? Sure, it’s fun to meet & greet while we eat & eat and for some stay-at-home parents baking is no doubt a cozy thing, and it’s all for a good cause, so — c’mon, why not?

Well, let’s recap what’s supposed to happen here: as a parent who cares about my school library I’m expected to feel ever-so-gently guilt-tripped/compelled/convinced to go buy the ingredients for a batch of cookies, then spend time baking said cookies. Then my kid is supposed to spend his time selling said cookies to his friends and their families, who have themselves baked even more cookies and are staffing the table right across the hall desperately trying to sell their own mountain of cookies… And at the end of this busy day full of frosting and crumbs, the PTO will be able to count all those sticky quarters in the jar and proudly declare: “wow, we raised a couple of hundred bucks for the MCS library, way to go, fifth  graders & their families!” And everyone will feel oh, so good (or at least better) about those fourteen “death-by-chocolate” brownies they felt compelled to buy and eat “for the cause.”

But, let’s cue the nutritionist: There are, oh, 243 calories in a brownie, more or less the same in a cookie or cupcake depending on the recipe (I’ll refrain from the next layer of analysis which would show that a massive percentage of those calories come from saturated fat, the rest largely from refined sugar). So, let’s put this event in perspective. There are about fifty kids in fifth grade; So, assuming each kid is bringing in an average of 16 items of 230 calories a piece, we’re putting just under two hundred thousand calories up for sale. The average person needs around 2,200 calories a day, so we’re basically selling enough sugary, fatty snacks to feed one hundred people for an entire day — breakfast, lunch, and dinner.Assuming the customers at the sale haven’t been starving themselves in preparation for the event, these will all be extra calories they didn’t really need. And if the customers are mostly kids, an event like this might help explain why one in three American kids are overweight or obese. Granted, Norwich kids are certainly more fit than average — but that must be in spite of us, not because of us, since a school fundraiser built largely on butter and sugar sure sends an odd message about our nutritional priorities on their behalf.

Now, cue the financial analyst: there’ll be about 800 items for sale. If the average price is 50 cents, the PTO will at most raise $400 from the bake sale, assuming everything sells. That’s $8 for each fifth grader. If the ingredients for my kids’ batch of cookies cost about two bucks and it takes me half an hour to make them, even at minimum wage we’re barely breaking even here. Add in 20 minutes of child labor selling the goodies, and you’re really only making a profit because the fifth grade families are giving you all of that for free. In fact, a bake sale is one of the least lucrative ways of fundraising imaginable. It would be faster, easier and less fattening to simply ask the parents of every fifth grader to send in $8 for the library and be done with it. If we then asked the 200 or so people who would have bought all the brownies to instead give us two bucks and go for a run, they’d be healthier and the library would be even closer to buying that class set of “Weightwatchers for Kids.”

I’m hardly the first person to notice the unhealthy mixed message we’re sending when we use junk food as a means to build our community, particularly when it involves our kids. And so, the last time they came a’knockin’ with a request for baked goods I sent a note to the PTO crowd with a link to this report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) that examines the pros and cons of traditional school fundraisers and recommends some healthier (and, frequently, more lucrative) options. But here in our little oasis of do-gooders with all their good intentions and apparently endless appetite for cookies, it appears we’ll continue doing it the old-fashioned way. I think it’s a tired, failed approach to engaging the community, and it certainly doesn’t get me fired up.

Am I too much of a boring party pooper, raining on the fundraiser with my oh-so-rational arguments about calories and poor returns on investments? Am I being too harsh? Perhaps. After all, a school bake sale is as American as apple pie. It’s a tradition; don’t mess with tradition unless you’re looking for trouble. But the rigid nature of this “tradition” as it’s presented bugs me: it’s made quite clear that I can’t simply elect to bring in a healthy alternative to help support the library; I can’t just help my kids run a lemonade stand for a day and give the proceeds to the library. Because it’s apparently not just about supporting the library, it’s about doing it the way the PTO wants it done: with a bake sale. And not just any bake sale, either, but specifically a sale of cup cakes, cookies, and brownies (“or other bars”). The list of acceptable options are right there; if I really want to do the right thing and help the library, I just need to pick, get bakin’, and deliver the goodies, right? Wrong. I hate it when people tell me what to do and how to do it.

Some will no doubt say, “Just shut up and bake the cookies, dammit, it’s for a good cause, and it’s the way it’s been done for decades. It’s a tradition, okay?” But so were so many other stupid, pointless inefficient things that we all kept doing mindlessly until someone had the courage to point it out convincingly enough that everyone came to realize there was a better way. So maybe I’m just hoping that the PTO will eventually come around and try to find a better way to support the school library than with another bake sale. And maybe I’ll show up at the bake sale with a tray of fruit salads — just to show ’em…