The childhood obesity epidemic in the United States is leveling off for multiple reasons, including efforts in some schools and districts to limit access to junk food, from vending machines to parties featuring ice cream and cupcakes.

Efforts by the MUSC Boeing Center for Children's Wellness have done a remarkable job, within just the last few years, of creating a healthier "culture" on public school campuses in the Charleston area with its annual wellness contest.

Schools, more specifically wellness committees, have a multipage checklist (basically a template for action) for adding physical activities and having healthy food on campuses.

"Our checklist addresses healthy school fundraisers and encourages schools to adopt a policy that all school fundraisers will be healthy or nonfood based," says Coleen Martin, a registered dietitian at the MUSC Boeing center.

Based on scores from those checklists, schools compete in the center's wellness contest for cash prizes and top honors, including a big trophy that the school keeps for a year.

Last year, out of the 72 Charleston County School District schools with wellness committees, Angel Oak Elementary on Johns Island was the runner-up to Goodwin Elementary School in North Charleston as the wellness champion.

I covered the year-end event and was impressed with the participation and interest.

Doughnut sale

So it was a surprise to me when I saw, via a Facebook post by parent Melissa Boyd Webb, a note announcing that Angel Oak was holding a Krispy Kreme doughnut coupon sale with the incentives for the top-selling classes being a pizza party and an ice cream party.

Webb, the parent of a pre-kindergartner, was upset and disappointed by the note from Angel Oak's Parent Teacher President Wanda Ford announcing the fundraiser.

In the post, Webb said, "There are no words to describe how frustrating it is to get a letter like this from your child's school. It's not just his school ... I'm sure parents get these kinds of letters all of the time."

Webb says there's nothing wrong with a child eating a slice of pizza and that she supports youth having entrepreneurial projects, "but selling doughnuts?"

She adds that many Americans struggle with making good food decisions and that having children ask adults to buy doughnuts would be hard for many to turn down. Many of her friends on Facebook expressed support for her position. Some even wondered if the note were a joke.

Later in a phone interview, Webb says she supports children having entrepreneurial experiences, but "that there has to be a better way to raise funds for our school other than to sell doughnuts."

"We're better than that," says Webb. "Just because selling Krispy Kreme is an easy fundraiser doesn't make it right or the best thing for our children and the community."

For Webb, the note was her wake-up call to be more involved.

Defending coupons

Angel Oak Principal Jennifer Baez, in a conference call with the district's communication director Jason Sakran, defended the fundraiser, especially in light of the array of wellness initiatives the school has undertaken recently.

Baez stressed that the sale was for doughnut coupons, not the doughnuts; that there's a difference; and that the sale has been going on for years.

Baez also says that Angel Oak is a Title I school with 78 percent of the students on free or reduced (cost) lunches, and that "most of our parents won't participate" in the sale.

In a statement after the call, she said the following:

"For the last couple of years, Angel Oak has taken steps to educate and change the food culture at the school. We have implemented many healthy initiatives like running club, healthy cooking club, kids yoga, and a monthly farmers market. This past year we began offering bottled water as an alternative to milk. We have even discontinued ice cream sales in our cafeteria. I understand the parent's concern and I welcome all ideas and strategies on how we can strengthen our healthy eating initiatives at Angel Oak."

Angel Oak PTO President Ford says she was surprised to hear a parent object to the doughnut sale, saying that the PTO has an open door at all meetings and the organization is open to all fundraising ideas.

Like Baez, Ford says the children would not be selling doughnuts, but coupons for doughnuts. Yet she agreed that there's not much more than doughnuts offered at Krispy Kreme.

The money, she adds, is needed to pay for transportation for school field trips and the year-end field day, for awards and, yes, hot dogs and soft drinks.

Breaking old habits

Considering the health crisis facing the nation from childhood obesity, is there a place for junk food fundraisers in the schools anymore? Or is this just a case of old, easy habits having a hard time dying?

Louis Yuhasz, founder of Louie's Kids, has been on the frontline of the childhood obesity struggle for more than decade, and he described the fundraiser as "crazy" and that he was "shocked" that the principal allowed it.

"Isn't there a saying by Einstein on the definition of crazy as doing the same thing again and again (and expecting different results)," says Yuhasz. "It would seem as long as these things are allowed by our school district all of our efforts with regards to children's health is for naught."

Yuhasz applauds parents, such as Webb, who speak up and acknowledge the need for schools to be diligent about on-campus wellness.

The positive side

The folks at the MUSC Boeing Center for Children's Wellness say the Charleston County School District, and Angel Oak Elementary specifically, has "made terrific strides in transforming schools into environments that promote wellness."

Registered dietitian Lucie Kramer says Angel Oak's accomplishments included holding wellness committee meetings every month, providing weekly fruit and vegetable tastings for students, and swapping all sugary drinks on campus with healthier alternatives.

"However in this case, using junk food as the means and reward is double trouble," says Kramer.

"First, the students are promoting junk food to family and neighbors. Second, their reward for doing a good job selling the junk food is to receive junk food. Angel Oak is not the only school using one or both parts of this model," says Kramer.

She says the community will buy other items from children for a fundraiser, such as oranges, nonfood items, or even activities, such as sponsoring laps for a school walk-a-thon. And the rewards for achievement are innumerable, such as extra recess time.

Kramer's colleague at the center, Coleen Martin, says that despite Angel Oak's successes last year, the school did not adopt a schoolwide policy for healthy or nonfood fundraisers.

"School administrators, school clubs, athletics, PTA's and parents may be resistant to the adoption of a schoolwide policy not because of lack of concern for children's health but simply because keeping the status quo and selling junk food is what is known and the amount of funds provided are proven," says Martin.

"Once this precedence is established, changing it is scary."

Martin adds that "obesity is the new norm, and being anything but requires awareness, education and intentional actions."

"Many households are full of junk food, so selling it may not register with these families as a bad idea. Parents, teachers or others who want junk food out of their school may want to join the school wellness committee and work together to facilitate the change."

Krispy Kreme

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.