Does the school district you live in have a wellness policy? Chances are, you’ve never thought about it. If that’s the case, I encourage you to find out and, if it does, to take a close look at the policy in place.
Across the nation, an increasing number of school districts across the country are adopting wellness policies that strengthen the rules around fitness and nutrition in their schools. In 2010, an estimated 81% of middle and 77% of high school students attended a school with an established wellness policy. The widespread adoption of wellness policies stems from the passage of the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004, which required all school districts participating in the federal school lunch or breakfast programs (aka: most schools) to create a wellness policy by 2006.
However, although many school districts now have wellness policies in place, most of those policies remain weak and are typically not in line with national recommendations. Additionally, according to a RWJF survey, only 1/3 of students attend schools with an actual plan for implementing their wellness policy.
Why am I bringing this up? Rather than waiting around for your state or city to do something to improve the health of your community, working to enhance your school district’s wellness policy is a great way to tackle the rising childhood obesity epidemic and impact the overall health of your community at the same time.
Let’s face it: schools play an absolutely critical role in the lives of our youth.Kids spend about half (or more, if you factor in things like school bus rides, after school activities, weekend school-related functions, etc) of their day in the school environment. How could improving a school district’s wellness policy not make an impact on the health of your community?
We know that changing the school environment makes a big difference in the life of a child. The types of food and beverages that are available affect their overall diets, weight, and caloric-intake. Providing adequate physical activity improves their health, academic performance and classroom behavior — plus it sets the stage for a lifetime of healthy living. Surrounding them with an environment free of unhealthy food and junk food marketing (including eliminating school fundraisers that involve selling or promoting unhealthy foods) sends a message that will impact their overall eating habits.
We know all of these things, and yet few wellness policies go so far as to meet national recommendations. For instance, a RWJF survey found that only 17% of middle school students and 14% of high school students attend schools with a policy allowing “only healthy foods” at student fundraisers. This is a huge missed opportunity to do the very best we can for the health of our children.
So how can you improve your school district’s wellness policy? The USDA has a decent (albiet slightly outdated) guide that serves as an excellent starting point.
Anyone can start the process to create a new wellness policy or update an existing one. By law, stakeholders from all areas involved (parents, students, representatives of the school food authority, the school board, school administrators, and the public) must be involved in the process. The USDA website walks you through all of the steps involved in the policy process — including researching your existing policy, creating a policy team, assessing your school district’s needs, and building awareness and support for your policy. It also provides examples of strong wellness policies.
(Note: If you haven’t already, I highly recommend reading the 2012 Bridging the Gap: School Policies and Practices to Improve Health and Prevent Obesity report)