Schools Face New Mandate on "Wellness"

Roshin Mathew
April 24, 2006


On October 11, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Child Nutrition Act into law, and remarked, "Good nutrition is essential to good learning." Fifty years later, the federal government is moving towards a role—though a limited one—in recognizng the links between many aspects of children's health and their school succcess. When Congress reauthorized the Child Nutrition Act and the WIC programs in 2004, the legislation went beyond federal food programs to establish a new mandate: that school districts create local school wellness policies that address health and nutrition education along with physical activity and every aspect of the food and drink made available during the school day. Those local policies are supposed to go online by the start of the 2006-2007 school year.

Why is the policy needed?

According to a 2000 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention entitled School Health and Policies Program, 70.1 percent of schools surveyed allow students to purchase foods high in fat, sodium, and added sugars, and 49.9 percent of schools have entered into contracts with soda companies that sell their product on campus. Of these districts, 63 percent receive sales incentives from soda companies.

What is the policy?
The federally mandated Local School Wellness Policy gives schools an opportunity to create a healthy school environment for students to learn in. The legislation requires the development of the local policies by all school districts with federally funded school meal programs (most schools offer federally-funded meals). Each district is charged with forming a committee, drafting a wellness policy, and implementing the policy by the start of the 2006-2007 school year. Policies are to include:

1. Goals for nutrition education, physical activity, and other school-based activities that promote student wellness.
2. Nutrition guidelines for all foods available on campus during the school day with the objectives of promoting student health and reducing childhood obesity.
3. Assurance that guidelines for school meals provided under the federal reimbursement program will, at a minimum, meet regulations and guidance issues by the Secretary of Agriculture.
4. A plan for measuring the impact and implementation of the policy.
5. Involvement from parents, students, and representatives of the school authority, school board, school administrators, and the public, in development of the policy.

The CDC reports on their web page that the prevalence of overweight among children aged 6 to 11 more than doubled in the past 20 years, going from 7% in 1980 to 18.8% in 2004. The rate among adolescents aged 12 to 19 more than tripled, increasing from 5% to 17.1%. The health implications are serious: being overweight can lead to heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social and psychological problems.

Most can agree that parents, the government, the private sector, and students all must play a role in reducing childhood obesity. Schools are also a big part of the solution, because a child spends the majority of her waking life in school and her success in school directly relates to the quality of her health.

Highlights from School Wellness Policies

Several school districts have already passed their local policies ahead of the July 1st deadline, and the School Nutrition Association points to some of them as models. A survey of the policies adopted in Leon County, Florida, Pittsburgh, Appleton, Wisconsin, San Francisco reveal the importance of the word "local." Each policy is unique.

In Pittsburgh, the school district gathered input from a more diverse group of stakeholders than the law requires. In addition to the usual suspects, their committee relied on help from curriculum personnel, human resources personnel, administrative personnel, health care agencies, universities, faith-based partners, community-based partners, foundation partners, and corporate partners.

Martin Gonzalez, the assistant executive director for governance and policy services with the California School Board Association, believes such broad outreach will pay off. "Having board members interested in the issue area is helpful, but I think being able to draw in community resources is a larger issue," says Gonzalez. Gonzalez believes school wellness policies become sustainable when the entire community gets involved in the conversation.

Pittsburgh area schools plan on using their community resources to fund and execute innovative ideas for health improvement at the school level by working with local universities to acquire mini-grants.

In San Francisco, public school cafeterias tap into local resources by encouraging the purchase of locally grown and organic foods whenever possible. They also plan to explore the feasibility of establishing salad bars in all the schools.

Districts are experimenting with different approaches to food policy. In Appleton, Wisconsin schools, foods offered a la carte in a school's cafeteria and as part of the fundraising programs need not meet federal nutritional guidelines if they are offered intermittently and in moderation; whereas in Leon County Florida, the foods in the a la carte line must meet the federal guidelines.

Michael Dollard, assistant superintendent of the Board of Cooperative Educational Services in Liberty County, New York, says that kind of flexibility allows schools to make gradual changes that reflect community concerns, increasing the chances for long- term success. Dollard says, "The initial phase of this (local school wellness policy) is to introduce it to the staff and do more proactive stuff, recognize people that are doing some good things, suggest alternatives to what's been done in the past "And then ease forward with education and those types of efforts, and avoid being perceived like the 'food police' looking over somebody's shoulder so that they're going to hide things under the desk when they see us coming."

If the food police really existed, it's likely that they would have one thing the creators of these new local policies lack—enforcement capability. While the federal government requires the development of plans, no mechanism for enforcing compliance or imposing sanctions on districts that fail to comply exists.

A Question of Enforcement

In spite of that, Dollard and others remain hopeful that the process of developing a policy, in itself, will spur change. Says Dollard, "The document isn't the important part. After the policy is developed, people really need to put in the time and effort to enact some of these strategies in a proactive way for anything to happen."

Parents can play a role by learning about their districts' policies and then holding school officials accountable. At the start of the school year, parents should be able to view their school district's wellness policy so they know what changes to expect. Of course most working parents lack the time to give the lunch ladies the third degree. That's where students come in — informing their families about changes in their school's food, health, nutrition, and physical education policies, for instance. Parents can compare the promises of the policy to the observations of their children and take action from there.

A Question of Funding

Peggy Lee, Food Services Director of Chesapeake, Virginia, says simply asking schools to "think outside of the box" without financial support diminishes the effectiveness of the policies. She says, "We're all very creative. Teachers are creative, food services folk are creative, school systems are creative, but it really boils down to having enough money to do some things that would certainly effect change faster than we're seeing." In Lee's school district, for example, students in grades 11 and 12 are not required to engage in any physical activity, and elementary school students cannot participate in physical education every day.

Martin Gonzales notes in the absence of dedicated funding, "The conversation then goes back to the priorities of the community and the beliefs and the visions of the community: how is this translated into financial decisions for the district?" Not all districts lack the resources to fund their wellness policies, but tough decisions will have to be made and priorities established for this approach to succeed. And districts will need to turn to the often generous but potentially unreliable support of the private sector.

Robert Hagemann, principal of Mcintosh Middle School in Sarasota County, Fla, got the insurance industry involved in funding physical activities for his school's staff because he realized insurance companies care about "having employees that are fit and trim and live a healthy lifestyle. And a lot of people in school districts, states, and organizations haven't tapped into that. The insurance industry is certainly interested because their costs go down, and then the districts costs go down, and then the employees are in a much better situation. So that's a real good example of corporate America buying into it (local wellness policy)."

July 1st marks the deadline for establishing a wellness policy. The first round of evaluations of the policy will begin a year from now. That's when districts may begin to learn if their policies are having an impact.

Roshin Mathew is an Emerson Hunger Fellow working with Connect for Kids this year. This is the first of several articles on school health and wellness policies and programs.


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