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Chocolatiers defend the candy's honor

by system
Mon, Apr 9th 2007 12:00 am
Business First  [ View Original Article ]


Springtime is a sweet time of year for area chocolate companies, as thousands of schoolchildren bearing Easter candy fundraising booklets pop up like spring tulips.

But new federal guidelines on wellness in the public schools have the potential to sour profits, both for candy makers and the groups who rely on their products for fundraising dollars.

Ted Marks, owner and president of Fowler's Chocolates, said demand has remained strong this year, the first holiday selling season since public schools were required to adopt wellness policies by last July. The company filled orders for Easter chocolate through its fundraising booklet for about 90 organizations this year, while hundreds of schools and organizations collectively sell over a million $1 candy bars each year.

"We'll be doing a lot of re-signing after Easter with all the fundraising that goes on. We'll be paying attention to it at that time," Marks said. "We're certainly cognizant of it. It's something we pay attention to, but in a lot of ways, we're fortunate it's a successful fundraiser, and PTAs and youth groups and baseball and sports team leagues are always going to need to raise some money. A dollar candy bar is a pretty easy way to do it."

The issue stems from the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004, which required that all schools with federally funded meals programs develop and implement wellness policies that address nutrition and physical activity by the start of the 2006-07 school year. Exactly how detailed the program should be, and how far it should extend beyond the cafeteria or classroom, was left up to interpretation by the individual schools.

The lack of consistency and specificity has resulted in confusion all around, said Tony Terranova, whose family has operated Niagara Chocolates Inc. since the 1950s. The company, a division of SweetWorks Inc., has two manufacturing sites on Genesee Street and Sonwil Drive that generate nearly $40 million in chocolates and candy each year for clients nationwide, including 600 to 800 schools.

"I think that what's happening is there's a lot of confusion as to how far to go with it," he said. "Unfortunately, there are a lot of different interpretations. It could be harmful to us if interpreted the wrong way. There are schools and districts that don't know what to do with it, or have opted not to conduct a fundraiser because of it."

Overall, though the company has lost some business, Terranova said most schools recognize the wellness policies should apply first and foremost to what's going on inside the school buildings, and leaving fundraisers - which typically go on outside the school among parents - out of the equation.

At Niagara-Wheatfield Central School District, the goal is to create a healthier environment for everyone - not just students, but staff and parents too. To that end, the district is gradually introducing nutritional goals and working to make kids more active, as well as addressing the foods sold in vending machines and bake sales and served for classroom birthday parties.

"I think probably most districts are fairly new at this," said Diane McGranor, health services coordinator for the district. "I would imagine most are trying to target vending machines and lunches. I'm not sure how it's trickling down into bake sales."

Since this is the first year the wellness policy is in place, the changes have been minimal, such as stocking vending machines with healthier choices, substituting baked chips in the cafeteria and hanging posters around the buildings about smart choices. No hard and fast decisions have been made about restricting things such as chocolate or cookie dough at school fundraisers, McGranor said.

"We're taking baby steps," she said. "We're trying to look at this very realistically. We don't want to say, 'You can never, ever sell chocolate.' Easter is the big candy sale, so realistically, maybe one chocolate sale or one sweet sale, but then also educate them that there's other things that can be sold."

The change at the fundraiser level will be a gradual change at Cheektowaga Central Schools as well, said Dennis Kane, assistant superintendent. Part of the problem is the items that bring in the most money with the lowest margins are also the foods that aren't very good for you, he said.

"When we did this policy last May, we said we were going to expect gradual change," he said. "The football team has a fish fry fundraiser. When's that going to become a salad bar? That could be a long time. It's a big moneymaker and people really like it."

Some vendors say the wellness policies give them an opportunity to highlight changes they've previously implemented. Personal Touch Food Service just rolled out its own nutrition and wellness program at the 18 school districts where it provides food services. Nearly 500 Personal Touch employees work at schools in seven counties throughout the region, providing cafeteria services, including staffing, management and some vending, as well.

The Buffalo company had been making nutritional changes in recent years in response to client needs, as well as requests by parents and students. The company's program meets all the district wellness policies where it does business and, in some cases, far exceeds those standards, said David Cervi, vice president.

That includes such things as using all non-trans fat oils, more whole grains and some whole wheat products as well as shifting from nacho cheese to light cheeses and changing to lower-fat soup bases, he said.

"One of the things we were not good at was shouting about what we do well already. This helped us clarify all that," Cervi said. "I don't think it will affect our profitability. We need to take a leading role in making sure that the administrations we work with - and the students we serve - understand what we're doing."

The biggest challenge has been to extend those policies and procedures outside the schools, he said. Cervi recounted a story about a friend who asked what Personal Touch is doing to make sure his child isn't getting fat.

"Out of 21 meals a week, we're feeding them three or four and you're asking me what we're doing?" he said. "What I see as the biggest challenge is educating everyone we touch, all of our clients, teachers, parents and kids, to make sure they understand what is and isn't good. Then we provide those choices and they can make good choices."