Sunday, February 05, 2006

School wellness policies in Massachusetts

My five-year-old began kindergarten at our local public school this fall. Having your oldest child leave home for school feels like taking the most precious thing you have and setting it on a post in a very public place, with a poster underneath saying, "Here you go world. Have at him."

While most children in our elementary school appear to bring lunch, there is a substantial fraction who participate in the National School Lunch Program. Our boy gets his lunch every day from this program.

There may be no stranger world, in all the literature of science fiction and fantasy, than the world of kindergarten as a parent hears it described by a five-year-old. I know, for example, that the federal school lunch program has requirements that children at least be offered a meal that meets the federal Dietary Guidelines. Still, the menus we get from the school are full of fast food main dishes like chicken nuggets and stuffed crust pizza. Our son sometimes reports eating carrots or fruit salad, but at other times it seems there was no fruit or vegetable. When asked, he agrees that there apparently was some such thing somewhere, but it leaves me picturing a bowl of vegetables in a small cave at the end of some long rabbit hole in Alice's Wonderland.

I spoke of these experiences a couple weeks ago as panelist at the annual public forum of the Arlington, MA, chapter of Stand for Children, a national network of local chapters that advocate for public policies to serve the interests of children. This year, the priorities for our chapter are to ensure adequate education funding at the state level, and to promote a strong local school wellness policy.

All school districts must establish such a wellness policy by the start of the 2006-2007 school year. An earlier post linked to one source of model planks for such a policy, from the Center for Ecoliteracy. I have since found others. See, for example, the website of Action for Health Kids.

The effect of school nutrition policies is a very active area of current research. A December article by Martha Kubik, Leslie Lytle, and Mary Story in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine is a good place to start. In addition to concluding that lax policies are associated with increased childhood obesity rates, the bibliography is helpful for readers who want to compile some of this research for use in their own wellness policy advocacy in the next couple months.

But it takes more than research. An article by Anne Wallace Allen in the Associated Press yesterday, about junk food in an Idaho school, makes clear how important it is to pay attention to building an advocacy coalition in support of some of the stronger planks. In the Idaho school, for example, the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) was a major opponent of strong nutrition policies, out of concern for the implicit paternalism and perhaps out of concern for the loss of its own junk food fundraising sources. Other potential sources of opposition include school food service directors who must balance a tight program budget using sales of a la carte items and perhaps vending machines, or principals whose discretionary budget relies on vending machines. Student groups, also concerned about puritanical nutrition policies, might be another source of opposition.

I think each of these concerns can be addressed with some patience and understanding. Here in Arlington, I hope we can begin outreach to groups that use unhealthy food in fundraisers early. Many of these groups have probably always thought of their fundraisers as harmless, and perhaps rightly so when everybody else is selling junk food in schools also. What makes the new wellness policy different is that it hopes to establish a better environment in which adults in school aren't making money selling junk food to children. In this new environment, the occasional fundraiser does comparatively more damage to the overall message about what a healthy school day is like. I think most sponsors of fundraisers, who are after all raising money to help these same children, may be willing to take into account these changes.

For outreach to student groups, I have two ideas. One is to meet with student leaders to discuss how much of the junk food marketing in schools is intended to manipulate them and their colleagues. While students may be concerned about puritanical nutritionists, these nerdy do-gooders can't hold a candle to the more sinister mind control games of the junk food marketers. I think the fabulous youth-centered anti-tobacco ads a few years ago, which effectively skewered the implicit lies in tobacco marketing, did wonders for making non-smoking cooler. The second idea is to try to get help from coaches and athletes, who have a more immediate interest in a healthier nutrition and fitness environment in schools. While reducing heart disease at age 70 may not be an effective motivator for teenagers, it is far from the only selling point for a strong school wellness policy.

Please feel free to post comments with suggested resources and the experience of your own school district. And wish us luck here in Arlington this Spring.


Anonymous said...

This will be a bit vague, but the British chef Jamie Oliver put out a DVD about his work to change the diet of some particular school in the UK, and supposedly it's fantastic. You might check into that...

From the looks of it, school nutrition may be the place that nutritious/local/organic food gets a foot into the mainstream door. Not that it's easy, but I'm seeing a lot of inroads.

Joanne said...

You could try calling Alice Waters - she is very deeply interested in the welfare of children's food programs at the very least you might be able to talk to someone at the Edible Schoolyard for tips - the website is a great resource.

You should feel fantastic for taking a stand on the issue (and for taking such interest in your child). I personally applaud you. It is so difficult to get the schools to change when many of the parents don't provide much better at home. There'll be a lot of education to do on your mission and it won't be limited to the school kids. We'll be in your shoes in a year or two with a kindergarten-er.

Best Wishes

KathyF said...

Yeah, I was going to suggest Jamie O. too.

I opted out when my kids were in elementary school. My kitchen became a PB&J factory every morning. Have you seen the Vegan Lunch Box blog? I want her for my mommy!

And good luck.

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