Do School Bake Sales Really Bring in the Dough?

by Dana Woldow on July 31, 2012

Say the words “school fund raising” and the first thing most people think of is “bake sale.” This, despite the fact that school bake sales have come under fire in recent years as contributors to an unhealthy school environment, which may also include junk food served in the cafeteria, and an almost complete absence of physical education classes. When Massachusetts considered a school day ban on bake sales, public outcry forced the measure to be scrapped. The connection in the public’s mind between bake sales and schools’ ability to raise funds to pay for needed programs is just too strong. But are bake sales really an effective way to fundraise at school?

To find out, I calculated the total cost to make a batch of chocolate chip cookies to be donated to a school bake sale, as compared to how much money the sale of those cookies would generate for the school. The results might surprise you.

With three children who attended public schools kindergarten through 12th grade, in a school district which is perennially strapped for money, I organized, contributed to, ran, and patronized many a bake sale over our 18 years as a public school family. But food prices have been going up since my kids graduated, and are expected to rise more in 2013, partly because we are in the midst of this country’s worst drought in 60 years. The costs listed here were accurate as of mid-July 2012, in San Francisco, which admittedly is an expensive place for everything, including food. Your mileage may vary.

To determine the cost of ingredients for the cookies, I went to Safeway, a supermarket chain operating over 1600 stores across the US and Canada. I chose Safeway because they have stores near my neighborhood. You might be able to find cheaper prices on some of the items if you shop at, for example, Trader Joe’s, but not every community has a Trader Joe’s. Or, you might find cheaper prices if you shop at a ‘big-box’ store, but those stores are often located on the outskirts of heavily populated areas, and you may have to drive quite a bit farther, and wait in the checkout line quite a bit longer, to get those savings. Time has a value in this calculation too, so a savings on ingredients may easily be offset by a higher expense for travel or shopping time.

The recipe used is the one found on the back of packages of Nestle’s Toll House semi sweet chocolate morsels. I priced the least expensive version of each ingredient, which was usually the store brand; I only included a national brand if it was on sale and cheapest, with one exception – I did use the Nestle’s morsels and not the store brand, but they were on sale and just a few cents higher than the Safeway brand.

I used real butter, as called for in the recipe, which is more expensive than margarine, but vastly superior in taste; likewise pure vanilla extract, not imitation vanilla. The recipe calls for a cup of chopped nuts, but I left these out. Not only are nuts a bit of a risk with so many kids having nut allergies these days, but nuts are also quite expensive, and the cost of 1 cup of chopped nuts would have added significantly to the cost of the batch of cookies.

For each ingredient in the recipe, I used only the cost of the actual amount used for the cookies. For example, while the 5 pound bag of flour was priced at $3.19, the 2¼ cups needed for the cookies contributed a cost of just $0.38 to the total. I priced larger sizes of bulk items (a 4 pound bag of sugar rather than a one pound box) because the larger the package, the lower the per-ounce price of the product. Thank goodness for unit pricing labels!

Finally, the recipe says it makes 60 cookies, but these would be tiny cookies which every child I know would consider to be a ripoff, even if sold in bags of 4 or 6. Making decent sized cookies of the size that typically sell for 50 cents apiece at bake sales, this recipe yields about 30 cookies.

So, how much do the ingredients for those 30 cookies cost? A whopping $7.25!

However, the cost of the ingredients to make the cookies is just one factor. Harder to quantify, but still legitimate expenses, are the costs of someone’s time to shop for the ingredients, bake the cookies, and clean up after. Even if we assume that Mom or Dad can pick up the necessary items for making those cookies on the weekly trip to the store (with no additional cost for shopping), the baking and cleanup still takes an hour.

Let’s price that labor at the Federal minimum wage – $7.25 per hour – even though many people value their own time much higher, and many states have a higher minimum wage. Now the cost of making those cookies has doubled, to $14.50. If those running the sale have requested that baked goods be brought in already individually wrapped, small baggies or plastic wrap will bump the cost up to about $15.

Priced at 50 cents apiece, the 30 cookies will bring in $15, or exactly the cost of the ingredients and labor to make and wrap them.

But wait, there’s more. Let’s say the bake sale is to take place during the recess after school lunch. Someone has to run the bake sale, including setting up tables in the school lobby before the sale, receiving the donated goods from parents at school drop off time in the morning, setting up the display and then doing the selling to the kids and cleaning up afterwards. This can require several more parents to each contribute 4 or 5 hours of their time, or many more parents to share the burden by contributing one hour each, and all of those labor hours have a value. At $7.25 per hour, the value of this donated labor amounts to perhaps $70-$100 more.

How did the families and students learn that there was going to be a bake sale? Were there flyers sent home, or posters put up around schools? More time, more expense.

Let’s not forget that the same families who contributed the $15 cookies also got hit up by their own kids for money to buy something at the bake sale; figure a parent will give each child $1 to spend. Add up the $15 to make the cookies, and maybe another couple of hours at $7.25 per hour to help run the sale, plus $1 each for a couple of kids to patronize the sale, and you are talking about some families underwriting the bake sale to the tune of $30 or more.

Of course, not everyone is going to bake for the sale, or volunteer to work at the sale. Most people will just give their kids some money and be done with it, and some won’t even do that. But for those who do bake, and who do volunteer to work, it is a lot of work for not very much money earned. Bake sales typically bring in only a few hundred dollars, but, as we have seen, require a lot of work.

Everyone is busy these days, most parents work, and often it is difficult to find the time to help out at school, even when we want to. Every time a parent donates even an hour to a school fundraiser, that is an hour that is not available to be donated to another, possibly more lucrative, fundraiser. It is also an hour that is then not available to help support the school at home – by reading to the kids, or helping them with their homework or with a major art or science project.

As schools become more and more dependent on parental support, it is vital that every volunteer hour be used in the most cost-effective manner. Why ask parents to donate their time and energy for a bake sale if there is a quicker and easier way of raising even more money?

Here’s a modest proposal – the “no bake” sale. Instead of asking families to shop, bake, and sell, doesn’t it make more sense to ask them to add up how much they would spend on bake sale participation (including the value of their time, and the money they would give their kids to shop at the sale) and instead just donate that amount to the school?

Think about it. At an elementary school of 350 students, probably only about 30-40 families are going to send in anything for the bake sale, but those 30-40 families will each contribute goodies and time valued at between $15-$30, depending on how much they bake and whether or not they also volunteer to help sell the goodies. Even just 30 families each sending in $15 (the cost to make 30 cookies) would yield $450; if only half of the remaining families sent in a $1 contribution for each of their kids (in lieu of buying from a bake sale), that would bring the total to over $600, and no one would have to shop, bake, or sell.

Not to mention the fact that the kids would not be consuming a bunch of sugary calories they don’t need in the name of “helping” the school. Win/win!

How the $7.25 ingredients cost breaks down
2¼ cups of flour: $0.38
2 sticks of butter: $1.65
3/4 cup of granulated sugar: $0.28
3/4 cup of packed brown sugar: $0.57
1 teasp. of vanilla: $0.36
2 eggs: $0.50
1 teasp. of salt: $0.01
1 teasp. of baking soda: $0.01
12 oz. bag of Nestle’s morsels: $3.49

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.

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