Advertisement

HomeImprove Your SchoolVolunteering & Fundraising

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."


Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

05/4/2010:
"COUNNTRY SPRINGS IS GOOD ACADEMICALLY BUT NEEDS MUCH IMPROVEMENT ON CHILDRENS NUTRITION (LUNCH) NOT CHIPS & HOT DOGS!"
02/22/2010:
"Here is a thought, instead of enforcing a welness program how about provide organic alternatives for the so called healthy food available. All of this processed garbage they are feeding the kids is horrible. Foods laden with pesticides, and meat with fillers cleaned with ammonia. Our kids are eating foods mass produced by multi national corporations that are responsible for the majority of the food produced for our consumtion. Forcing farmers to contract with these corporations and use their filthy foods. Most of our country don't even know where our food is produced or under what conditioins. Cows wading in manure, dead chickens laying around. Automated machines crushing pigs and reused over and over. Cows covered in shit and sent to the slaughter houses. Tell me do you think under those conditions somebody isn't going to get sick? Why do you think there are so many ecoli outbreaks? Bird Flu, Swine flue, this flu that flu. N1H1 who knows? Anyway buy organic, gr! ow your own plants. force these companies to change. The only way they will is if it becomes 'popular'. There are so many things wrong with this country and I don't know where to start. Oil companies? Cigarette companies? Food Corporatioins? Microsoft? Walmart? How about the Federal Government? Many government officials that are supposed to scrutinize or set standards for many of these companies already have large shares or are on the board of a lot of these companies!!! These companies also have the idea they are above the law as well. setting up factories in foreign countries, hiring cheap labor and avoiding pollution control. This all must stop! Revolt! Fight back! Stop using Microsoft switch to Open Source! Switch from pre-processed foods to organic foods! Stop eating fast food! Fight to legalize marijuana! Do something out there! "
09/25/2008:
"'When did it become the schools responsibility to raise our children?' Um, when the government told us we had to send our kids to school OR ELSE? Here in my state, the hoops you have to jump to homeschool are many and huge. If they are going to INSIST on having my child for 7-8 hours a day 'for their own good,' then they have the responsibility to provide a healthful environment, lots of opportunities for unstructured play and physical activity (which kids NEED), and decent food. Why should I have to spend all my off hours trying to combat lousy influences in the school, when none of these things were a problem before? If school is compulsory, then it damn well be better than what I can provide at home. Otherwise, it's criminal. "
09/17/2008:
"I agree with healthier food in schools and a well structured PE program. But I'm more concerned about the excessive use of chemicals in the kid's classrooms. Last year my son's clasroon was sprayed for months with an air freshener called Oust. He is asthmatic so you can imagine how sick he was for months before we could find out what was causing the constant coughing. We spoke with the school principal and demanded that it was made a policy to not use any type of chemicals in the classrooms. But like a quoted mother in your article said, policies are not always enforced. This year my son's kinder has Glade plug-ins and I just emailed again a letter to the teacher and the principal asking to please discontinue the use of such product. I've spoken with other parents but since they don't have asthmatic kids, they are not troubled by the situation. However, I would like for people to understand that the continued inhalation of these products might cause over time ! allergies or other disorders of the inmunologic systems to perfectly healthy kids. "
01/29/2008:
"My nephews school in Tierrasanta sells fresh wrapped sandwiches for lunch and soups. Our school provides fruits and veggies, but the entrees are your basic American kid food; pizza, nuggets, turkey hot dogs, corn dogs, oh, and nachos with fake cheese. Sad."
05/23/2007:
"Great information. I agree 100% that 'a fit child learns better.' I am a registered nurse, karate instructor, and dance aerobics instructor. Daily I see the striking contrast in quality of health and performance between those who excercise regularyl and those who don't. I have 6 grandchildren and encourage them in physical fitness."
01/10/2007:
"Our school has started a healthy snack program, and it is a big success. Although children are allowed to bring a snack from home there are strict guidelines to what is acceptable. The majority of the kids get their snack from the healthy snack cart for a nominal annual fee. the program pays for itself and the 'life skills' kids stock the cart and roll it around the school daily."
01/10/2007:
"It's not just sugar. What about all the garbage, chemicals/preservatives & medications/hormones being put in our foods? (which some are causing our children to hit puberty faster then we did). Hydrogenated oil is a HUGE offender of our health. I believe even worse then sugar. Sugar you can burn off. Hydrogenated oil sits in your arteries till you clog. It's in so much of our food! People also seem over obsessed with cutting carbs, but forget there ARE good carbs too. Trying to purchase wholesome food WITHOUT chemicals, can really put an average family in the poor house. If good food with less chemicals was more available & affordable for all, that could help the cause. I also agree with PE. We need it, but instead of everything being a competition, it should be a fun learning program. That is up to each individual gym teacher to make it fun or make it a competition. Children need to learn to encourage eachother in a positive way without the competitiveness. ((what h! appened to jazzercise?)) I also agree with the other Illinois' comments. Ignorance is not a good thing. And with so many fad diets being shoved in everyone's face, it can be difficult for someone to know what is ACTUALLY good for you and what isn't. I also agree that it isn't the government's job to tell our children what to eat. It's ours as parents. "
01/10/2007:
"Excellent points. Our school (son is in 1st grade) is just starting to improve. They were offering Little Debbie cakes and 'juice' (sugary fruit drinks) for the kids to purchase at snack time, and they recently switched to pretzels - not sure about the drinks. (I usually send my son a snack.) Lunch is iffy - I see 'tator tots' on the menu way too often - but I think they're starting to make some changes. They do have PE every 4th school day and they have 3 recesses a day (2 very brief ones but one is long enough for active play). I think at this stage PE is just learning some basic skills - and I HOPE that in the future years it will continue to emphasis fitness and fun rather than competition and being an athlete! On the sweets - if a kid gets sweets at school, sweets at a scout meeting, sweets at Sunday School and church, sweets at a birthday party, sweets at home or when eating out sometimes, etc. - it all adds up to a lot of sweets! So I'm all for reducing the sweet treats at school."
01/10/2007:
"My child's school does a fairly good job at providing healthy choices at lunch, but what I have found to be problematic in the health arena is the drinking fountain sanitation. I have a kinder and they have only one drinking area. It is on their playground and has 4 faucets. The problem is that the container tends to get backed up and not drain very well. So water will sit in it for long peroids of time. It is not usually visible to the average parent because of its location, so most parents were not aware. But one day I happened to volunteer and be in the playground area and found what looked like algae and other nasty organisms in the water. The water went up from the bottom of the faucet to the mid faucet area. So it was easy for the kids to get their mouths in the water. Not to mention the kids were splashing each other and playing in it. I talked with the teacher about it and they said it had been like that for more than a month and they had requested it be fixed 2+ times. I made sure to let all the parents I could know about the situation so they could also complain and warn their children. But 5 year-olds don't realy care when they are thirsty and this was their only drinking access. I know this isn't really along the lines of your article but it does relate to health and I would appreciate your input. What else would you suggest I do to address this issue if it continues to be a problem? Thanks"
01/10/2007:
"I think there should be a balance between healthy eating and 'goodies'. However, when my son is using his lunch money to only purchase two cookies, french fries and fruit punch for lunch every day, I think we need to take a look at what is available to our children."
01/10/2007:
"Our school district bans junk food from not only the cafeteria, but also from kids' lunches. I was really surprised at first, but now I'm glad--they get enough goodies from other places. Regarding celebrations, though, I do wish that instead of saying 'no goodies for parties,' they would provide recipes and allow for goodies meeting the state's SB-19 rules. Regarding PE, I think having a variety of options is good. When I was in high school, we had dance or aerobics as an alternative to regular PE, and I really appreciated that. (Would have *loved* the inline skating option!) I never cared much for team sports-style PE."
01/10/2007:
"This is a terrific article and it addresses many concerns that we have regarding our schools. I am happy to say that our school has implemented many of the suggested changes. In fact, today at our elementary school, it is the first day of salad bar option! Keep up the good work!"
01/9/2007:
"goodies are a part of growing up! we should limit them, not ban them. i feel parents and schools working together can decide what is good for the kids in that particular school and/or classroom."
01/9/2007:
"Are there scientific data that kids who eat nutritional snacks to avoid mid-morning slump actually do better academically?"
01/9/2007:
"I agree that a fit child learns better as does a child that eats a healthy diet. This isn't rocket science. The parents who are complaining about healthy foods in the cafeteria are probably the ones with the kids eating sugar and empty carbs. Frankly, I'm amazed at how fat this country has gotten and I'm afraid so little tax dollars are being spent on teaching kids physical fitness, I'll probably go bankrupt keeping my daughter in a Waldorf school. If I do end up sending my daughter to a public elementary school. You'll be seeing me among the likes of Dana Woldow. Thanks, Great Schools, for an awesome article. Let's hope America wakes up and realizes what really important. "
01/9/2007:
"I agree with one of the parents that the burden is not only the school's responisbility, but primarilly the parents'. I believe the schools should serve only healthy foods and snacks and that 'treats' should be provided from home. 9 times out of 10 I believe an obese child is the product of his/her environment. When I was going through school in the 70's and 80's there were very few (like 1 or 2) obese children in our schools. Now, obesity seems the norm. The school my children now attend at least 50% of the students are overweight to some extent. If children do not learn structured physical activity in school (their primary profession at their ages) then why or how would they learn to stay fit when they are out of school. We are conditioning our children to be lazy and unhealthy if we do not guide them to eat healthy as a norm and exercise every day. It is the parents' responsibility to hold the schools accountable for upholding these standards while our children ar! e in their care!"
01/9/2007:
"I agree with this article wholeheartedly, mostly with the PE portion. I think it would be a great idea to give students the knowledge to maintain a fitness program. Having the emphasis on team sports in PE class seems wrong. There are actual sports teams for that. I'd much rather my children gain a fitness routine that they could use throughout their lives. The food coming from the cafeteria presents a bigger problem. While, I agree that it would be great if the kids were eating healthier foods, I question that if only 'super' healthy foods were offered the children would opt to not eat the cafeteria foods in lieu of bringing food from home. Hopefully the parents would also send healthy food and the child would 'win' either way, but unfortunately the schools would suffer as they wouldn't be bringing in the money that they get for the cafeteria food. So, I wonder if this will ever happen. Money talks after all."
01/9/2007:
"For all those who say 'Cupcakes are not the problem...' I boldly state that cupcakes (along with all the other sugary foods) are a major part of the problem. Sugar, in and of itself, is such a problem that it would take too long to go into all the ways and to the extent that it is a PROBLEM. However, for the sake of time, I would like to point out that sugar, in all it's commercial glory, has contributed not only to diseases such as childhood Diabetes, but also to the fact that it does nothing to enhance the immune system; in fact it lends to breaking the immune system down. Case in point: Let's think about the time frame just after Halloween--when most kids are first coming down with their first cold or earaches or viruses of one kind or another. I know I hear an awful lot of parents say in amazement: 'I wonder why or where (my child) got this illness from?' In my years of acquiring knowledge about health concerns, my understanding is that it is more about each indivi! dual's immune system and how they can deal with illness around them, then it is with the illness itself. Therefore, if we keep encouraging sugar and feeding our children sugar, then it stands to reason that we will continue to have sick children, not only around us, but also on our own hands. And the opposite is also True: If we Keep our children away from the sugary, junk foods and substitute with healthier, less processed foods (perhaps things like fruit from nature!) then we will have children with more enhanced immune systems and healthier kids. I see it as a paradigm shift waiting to happen. Parents: There are creative, fun ways out there to have school parties or fundraisers without all the sugary foods that also contain artificial food dyes and other chemicals! It's our choice: Do we want sick kids with Attention Deficit Disorder-like tendencies because their poor little bodies are trying to handle all of these offensive chemicals, sugar and other poisons or do ! we want to be responsible, intelligent and caring about the fo! ods we A ND OUR SCHOOLS are feeding them? It's a paradigm shift ... and THE CHOICE IS OURS! "
01/9/2007:
"P.E. should definitely be in every school curriculum. For both the health & social aspect. As far as school lunches, I believe that schools do offer some healthy choices, but when you're a kid which would you choose, pizza or salad? I pack my child's lunch every day, but I know that he can purchase cookies, candy & chips right in the cafeteria. That is what needs to be banned. If parents would educate themselves about good nutrition, they can in turn educate their children and possibly make a difference within their school district. "
01/9/2007:
"Excellent Article as this is one of my hot topics!!! It's criticial to offer physical activity & healthy food in our schools from K-12th grade if we want healthy, vibrant adults later in life!"
01/9/2007:
"I am so glad to have stumbled onto this article. My stepdaughter attends Calvery Baptist Christian Academy in Glen Burnie. This is her 1st year. We have meet w/principal and teacher to restrict our daughter from having access to the schools food. WQe tryed to discuss them offering healthy choices but they said the chilkdren wouldn't buy it. The yoffer Krispy Creme for breakfast, unlimited access to vending machines and soda machines and bring in fast food 3 times a week. There is not one healthy item available! We made sure our daughter did not have money to buy these items and she ended up taking chairs down in the cafeteria morning and afternoon in return the vending machine was opened for her to pick her choice.She has gained 9 pounds since the beginning of the school year and is already a child that struggles to keep her weight under control. They also cut p.e to once a week. I am taking this to them tomorrow.Hopefully it will help make a difference in the school decidin! g to make a life saving change Thank you!"
06/8/2006:
"P.E. should absolutely be put back into the schools. In the Los Angeles school district lunches are improving, but there are no official P.E. classes in elementary schools unless the classes and teachers are funded through fundraising by the Booster clubs. Something only the wealthiest schools can afford. Cupcakes for birthdays are not the problem. The outside vendors with sugary snacks, and lack of physical activity is the problem. With academics now so highly structured, even at the Kindergarden level, there is very little time for P.E. during the day and each teacher has to do P.E. with their own classes, these are basically structured recesses. The teachers do the best they can, but there is no comparison to having a trained physical education teacher and the time set aside specifically for a p.e. class."
06/8/2006:
"The problem is not just obvious sugary treats. Most people have no clue as how to identify a protein, carbohydrate or fat. Or what is fructose or fiber, for that matter. Many items that schools consider 'healthy' nutritional bars and pretzels are absorbed just as quickly (as sugar) into the bloodstream as candy. The schools by us in Illinois considers pretzels a healthy choice. The body processes pretzels (or rice cakes) at the same rate as gummy bears. The body just knows it has received 'sugar' and responds by producing insulin to keep the blood sugar stable. Many 'healthy' items in schools also contain trans-fats. I know you CA know what I am talking about, but here in Illinois, many are totally clueless. While these current ideas offered by the school districts may be well intended, they are often mis-guided by ignorance. "
06/5/2006:
"I completely agree that our school systems need PE classes. It gives kids a chance to exercise and have a little fun during school hours. I also think that our school cafeteria's should provide healthier lunches for our kids. I packed my kids lunch everyday for the school year this past year just to keep my child from eating all the greasy foods served. Our kids need to exercise and be able to eat healthier at school!"
06/5/2006:
"I myself as a student, at the current age of 14. Belive these are some good ideas. At my current school (calvary Christian School), There is always a snack bar loaded with candy and junk food. I never buy stuff from there. I Wouldn't mind if the snack bar was taken away and filled with healthy food. I wouldn't mind there being a food policy, as long as it will prevent obesity. Pushups is a good punishment for P.E. though, and the physical Fitness test is good to have.If the P.E. was more strict students would be in better shape. Like for highschoolers, there would be weightlifting for guys. and for girls like cardio and what-not.. I don't think pushups and physical exams should be taken out. I may of read it wrong. But then thats my fault. Students should be able to bring whatever snacks they want from home.. It is there parents decision to let there children eat junk food if they please.. Just in moderation."
06/5/2006:
"Thanks a million. This is great"
05/23/2006:
"I think this is a great idea and any parent who is apposed should really look at where there child is heading...unhealthy children lead to unhealthy adults...and typically if the child is unhealthy/unfit, then so is the parent. Unfortunately most parents don't want to take the time to teach their child a healthy lifestyle, because the parent is too selfish to let go of their bad habits. This is a great tool for children! "
05/22/2006:
"Although I agree that our children are not physically fit these days, when are we going to take the monkey off the schools back about raising our children? PARENTS should be held accountable for their child's moral, physical, and spiritual well being. Schools should be held accountable for academics and activities that enrich the mind. We are lagging behind in both of these areas in our country, so why are we putting the weight of all these responsiblities on the schools? They are over burdened as it is, as funds are being continutally cut. When did it become the schools responsibility to raise our children? All we are teaching our children these days that is it someone elses responsibility for our actions -- not ours. Let's start teaching them accountability. Oh no, the teachers can't to that either. They might be portrayed as being the bully. How about this? Make the parents take a mandatory class with the school so it can be followed up at home? That would go over like a lead balloon wouldn't it? Valerie in Indiana "
05/22/2006:
"I am a public school teacher in Florida. While shocked at the severity of our new nutrition rules I am happy that SOMETHING is being done. Young children do not have the ability to make healthy choices on their own. They don't think about habit building and long term health. They will almost always choose chocolate or strawberry milk over white, french fries over veggies and then buy ice cream or a cookie to top it off. As a teacher I had my class make healthy choices (white milk, no treats) Monday-Thursday and then Fridays were a free day. I did this all year and it was very successful with my class. They looked forward to having a 'special treat' instead of buying sugar items EVERY day, as it should be. However, at the end of the year I was told by the cafeteria manager that I really should not have been 'interfering' with their choices. How will they learn what to do if no one models it for them? Five and six year olds being in total control of their diets does not make s! ense. Especially when half of the items on the food line are unhealthy. I look forward to seeing what changes will be coming for next year. Especially in the cafeteria and during the formative years of our students, before they are nutritionally ruined. Snack-time will be a challenge (parents are much more likely to send in a cheap box of cookies over expensive fresh fruit) but I still think this is a step in the right direction!"
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT