Results of the latest research on how well school wellness policies are doing at reducing childhood obesity are mixed. Nearly one-third of U.S. children are overweight or obese, and that figure shows no signs of declining. A new Robert Woods Johnson Foundation report has found that most schools have developed policies for improving students’ nutrition and increasing the amount of exercise children get at school, as called for by the 2004 Child Nutrition Act. But many of these policies are weak, full of shoulds, mays, and will try tos, and devoid of enforcement mechanisms.
In Washington, the state’s Cover All Kids law, passed in 2007, contained a provision requiring schools to establish wellness goals to be achieved by 2010. These included ensuring that only healthful foods meeting minimum nutritional standards are available in schools and that schools meet minimum phys ed requirements. The law also created a legislative task force on school wellness, which reported in December 2008 that most Washington middle and high schools continue to offer junk foods (such as soda and snacks in vending machines) that compete with school meals.
That’s too bad, because the RWJF report finds that when schools do set strong policies—and follow them—they appear to work. When schools removed unhealthy foods and beverages from campuses, consumption of these items decreased, and there was no compensatory increase in consumption outside of school.
The report concludes that the 2004 act was too weak, requiring school districts to set only general goals, failing to provide penalties if school don’t meet the goals, and, perhaps most importantly, providing no funding for implementing wellness policies. With the Child Nutrition Act up for reauthorization this fall, Congress has an opportunity to remedy these shortcomings.
-by Carolyn McConnell
photo by zhurnaly