Friday, May 19, 2006

School wellness policy in Arlington, MA

Parents, school officials, and community members around the country this Spring are working on "school wellness policies." As part of reauthorizing school lunch and school breakfast programs in 2004, Congress asked local districts to establish their own standards for snacks and beverages in schools, recess time, food at fundraisers, and so forth.

I have been serving here in Arlington, Massachusetts, on the Wellness Policy Committee that is drafting the policy. Then, the policy will be submitted to a subcommittee of the School Committee, and some time in June will be considered by the full committee.

In our town, key contributors to the draft policy have included: (a) the chair of the Wellness Policy Committee, Cathryn Cremens-Basbas, who is also the physical education director for the school district and leader of a great community wellness program called "Activate Arlington," (b) other school officials including the head of the nutrition and home economics program, the school food service director, and many others, (c) School Committee members who contributed much time and service to the Wellness Policy Committee, (d) senior school administrators, including the superintendent and influential principals, who have not been heavily involved in the Wellness Policy Committee meetings, but who will greatly influence the final outcome, and (e) parents, many of whom have organized themselves into an active local chapter of a children's advocacy organization called Stand for Children.

Here are the current Arlington action steps on school wellness policy, from the Stand for Children website:
Review the draft Wellness Policy and send any feedback to Judy Neufeld by May 23rd!

Meet with a stakeholder group to gather feedback and gain support for the Wellness Policy. If you are interested, email Judy Neufeld. See toolkit below for resources.

Attend the Open Forum on the Wellness Policy to provide feedback on May 22nd at 7pm, Robbins Library Community Room.

Attend the School Committee meetings on June 13th and 27th to show your support of the Wellness Policy. Stay tuned for more information.

To get involved, contact Judy Neufeld, Organizer, (781) 698-9448 or send email.

Join Stand for Children, or renew your membership as a Sustaining Member!
Some things give me hope for a strong wellness policy in Arlington. The draft policy seems quite good, and fairly well meets the three key priorities that the Stand for Children chapter identified -- a strong implementation component, a policy about adequate time for children's lunch, and an effort to rein in "competitive foods," which compete with the federal school lunch program. The draft also has good policies on nutrition education and health education, which are less controversial.

At the same time, I have many causes for concern. The school district is under great financial stress, because it relies on local taxes for funding and, as part of a deal about a tax override a year earlier, there can be no tax increases in the next few years. Furthermore, in making budget cuts, the superintendent and School Committee have perhaps wisely (sigh) placed priority on protecting classroom teaching staff and "consolidating" -- partly a euphemism for cutting or reducing -- some administrative positions that will be important for wellness. These cuts have severely affected the positions of several of the key school officials on the Wellness Policy Committee, which means that their continued service and energy on that project really represents a remarkably selfless gift to the community.

Another concern is that many people I have spoken with agree with most of the policy, but dislike one plank -- and it is never the same plank. For example, one parent likes the effort to get rid of competitive foods, but doesn't like the possible limitation that only healthy food would be sold at intermission for school plays, because the bake sale at that time is a cherished activity for her. Another person, with experience in school counseling, likes most of the policy but opposes the plank that prohibits denying recess as a punishment, which removes a discipline option that some counselors and teachers value. I fear that in the next rounds of revision, the policy may get stripped plank by plank, even if most planks of the policy have support from most people in the community.

The school district leaders on the Wellness Policy Committee and the Stand for Children chapter collaborated in April on a training for people doing community outreach about this policy. For example, parents who were trained may be meeting with sports booster groups that have traditionally had food and beverage fundraisers, to see if the booster groups might generously support the policy on principle, even though it requires a sacrifice on their part. The training included great presentations by two graduate students from the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts, Sonya Irish and Erin Hennessy.

I hope these community discussions will build support for a true big step forward for the nutrition and wellness of the next generation of children here in our town!

Please offer comments. If you are from Arlington, say so in the comments, so I can include your comments in a summary of public input that I am preparing next week for the Wellness Policy Committee.

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