January was a big month for the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs as the USDA made sweeping changes to nutritional standards for school meals for the first time in 15 years. Over the next few years, school meals will slowly increase fruits, vegetables, and whole grains while reducing fat, sodium, and calories. Health and nutrition advocates praised these changes however; we must remember that school meals are only one piece of the larger childhood obesity puzzle.
Students consume anywhere from one to three meals a day at school, but they are also offered unhealthy food rewards, celebratory treats, or food fundraisers numerous times throughout the school day. While many food service directors are helping to shift thinking and behavior within their district, not everyone has heard the call to health.
Research indicates that access to less nutritious foods is associated with increased body mass index and an overall decrease intake of fruits, vegetables, and milk. Efforts to encourage students to eat school meals with healthier options are thwarted every time students are offered unhealthy foods outside of the school meals program.
Schools can begin to address these issues by implementing age-appropriate nutrition standards; creating policies eliminating food rewards and unhealthy food fundraisers; and providing consistent messages to students, parents, and school staff. The Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program works with more than 14,000 schools around the country, including more than 100 in Kansas City, to get students and staff eating better and moving more. The Alliance offers resources to help provide healthier options for food and beverages served throughout the school day, including snacks and drinks sold in vending machines, a la carte lines, celebrations and fundraisers.
Many Kanas City schools have worked with the Alliance to change their policies and practices to improve nutrition across the school day. For example, all schools in the Independence School District are beginning to enforce a healthy fundraiser policy. To assist the district, an Alliance expert hosted a live webinar and provided resources, creative ideas, and answered schools’ questions on how to be successful with new fundraisers. Other schools, like Ridgeview Elementary School in Olathe, are encouraging a change in celebrations with healthy birthday clubs or healthy holiday parties.
With much work to be done in the area of health and wellness in school districts, everyone can contribute and support efforts to create healthier school environments. Creation of and active involvement with school wellness councils by parents, community members, as well as student will reinforce and support ongoing efforts to create a healthier school environment.
Most importantly, all involved must remember that efforts to reduce childhood obesity and improve the health and wellness of students is a marathon, not a sprint. There will be hurdles along the way, but schools across the country and right here in Kansas City are finding innovative ways to overcome these challenges. Anyone interested in helping a school become a healthier place can join the Healthy Schools Program online, at no cost, at www.HealthierGeneration.org.
The Alliance for a Healthier Generation works to address one of the nation’s leading public health threats—childhood obesity. The goal of the Alliance is to reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity by 2015, and to empower kids nationwide to make healthy lifestyle choices. Founded in 2005 by the American Heart Association and William J. Clinton Foundation, the Alliance works to positively affect the places that can make a difference in a child’s health: homes, schools, doctor’s offices, and communities. Learn more at http://www.HealthierGeneration.org.