Beyond the Food Fights: Helping Schools Get Healthy
School districts are now required to have formal wellness policies, but battles over school food and how to best improve kids' health rage on.
By GreatSchools Staff
In many schools, bagels have gotten smaller. Whole-wheat wraps are replacing pizza. PE equipment includes pedometers and heart-rate monitors, as well as basketballs and hockey sticks.
Schools around the nation are stepping up the focus on health, in part because of the growing evidence that many of our kids are at serious risk and in part because of a federal requirement that every public school district participating in the federal lunch or breakfast program have a "wellness plan" in place.
But while sodas are scarcer in school vending machines, there's been a backlash, driven be parents unhappy to see cupcakes become contraband. Attempts to ban the goodies caused a furor in a Virginia school in 2006, the Washington Post reported, and prompted the Texas state legislature in 2005 to pass the Safe Cupcake Amendment to protect the rights of parents to keep sending the treats to school.
And everywhere, school officials and parent groups struggle to figure out how to pay for programs and equipment.
The stakes are high: A report in the 2005 New England Journal of Medicine forecasts a decline in Americans' lifespans - the first in modern times - because of the rise of obesity.
What's a Wellness Policy?
The federal legislation requires each district to involve parents, students, food service staff, administrators, school officials and the public in developing a policy that includes:
- Goals for nutrition education
- Goals for physical education
- Goals for other school activities that promote student wellness
- A plan to implement the policy and a person in charge of doing so
Is It Working?
It's too soon to know how effective these wellness policies are in improving children's health. Action for Healthy Kids, a national advocacy group focused on children's health, took an early snapshot (by looking at the policies adopted in a small percentage of districts. The group found that of 112 urban, suburban and rural school districts, only 54% of the districts met the minimum federal requirements.
Because schools face budget constraints and increasing pressures to improve academic achievement-and because there's no penalty for failing to comply with the wellness requirement - parents, community members, governments and other organizations are enlisting in the battle to improve kids' health.
"Policies tend to be broad and vague," says Nora Howley, deputy director of Action for Healthy Kids. "The devil, as they say, is in the details."