Tuesday, December 26, 2006

How did your district do on school wellness?

School districts around the country worked this year to pass "school wellness policies," establishing guidelines at the local level for nutrition and physical activity.

These new policies follow several years of hand-wringing about rising rates of childhood obesity and many more years of negative changes to school food and wellness practices: shortened physical education, junk food in vending machines, pouring rights for soda companies, branded pizza as a lunch entree, potato puffs as a vegetable, food company marketing in the guise of nutrition education curricula, and on and on.

These changes sometimes seemed to "just happen," without having been established as policy by any particular accountable person or council. Although the 2004 mandate from Congress requiring school wellness policies stood in place of even more ambitious pro-nutrition policy options that Congress lacked the courage to adopt, this mandate did at least require local school districts to decide in public where they stand on the child wellness debates of the day.

Now comes the challenge of figuring out what the districts decided. There are many thousands of school districts in the United States. No systematic collection system was established to organize district-level information about wellness policies.

Fortunately, this month, the School Nutrition Association -- an advocacy group for childhood nutrition and in some respects a trade association for the school food service providers -- released a report summarizing the policy decisions for a representative sample of 140 school districts (.pdf) (data on a la carte policies excerpted below). This new report follows an earlier report this fall about the 100 largest school districts (.pdf). The results are summarized briefly in this press release.

If you care about nutrition and wellness in your own local area, get and read a copy of your own local wellness policy. Here is a link to my town's policy (I served on the wellness policy committee and the later implementation committee until recently). Now, really for the first time, you can easily compare your district to other similar districts around the country. It almost makes me wish the parents here in Arlington had pressed even harder than we did for a vigorous pro-wellness policy.

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