Wellness Policies Promote Healthy Choices
Note: The following article appeared in Education World, an online resource for teachers and school administrators. The article shows how the implementation of local wellness policies has had an effect on classrooms nationwide.
December 20, 2006 -- The federal mandate for schools to adopt written wellness policies has prompted many to look not only at what is served in their cafeterias but at snacks and drinks in vending machines, concession items, and more. The focus on better nutrition and more physical activity is designed to improve the health of students, and as schools from Pennsylvania to Idaho have told Education World, teachers support the effort. What have these schools learned? Included: Advice from those who are currently implementing wellness policies about how to make them work.
"It is essential to involve students, parents, and teachers as soon as possible in the process," says Gail Heinemeyer. "Education is key. When a wellness policy comes as a top down mandate, there is resistance. If these folks are on board from the beginning and understand the reasons why these actions are being taken, it will be easier to implement the policies."
The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 that required schools to adopt written policies regarding nutrition and exercise by the start of the 2006-2007 school year prompted the creation of the Ridley School District Student Wellness Policy. Ridley Middle School has instituted a health and wellness advisory council that includes teachers, parents, students, administrators, guidance counselors, and the school nurse. Its members are reviewing the federal and district guidelines and will help develop surveys to assess the current state of nutrition in the Ridley Park (Pennsylvania) school.
Policy in Practice
"We asked all teachers to submit a list of any time that they use food in their class either as an incentive or as part of the curriculum," explained Heinemeyer, Ridley's principal. "For example, the exploratory foreign language teachers do a food festival highlighting foods from the country or countries where the language is spoken. Science teachers often used food items in experiments, and sometimes those items were edible. These examples were in addition to using food as a reward or incentive. We were surprised at the number of circumstances in which food items were being used."
Changing the habits of teachers who were accustomed to distributing candy or soda as a reward has been one of the greatest challenges the school has faced in implementing the wellness policy. Heinemeyer is encouraging staff members to think in terms of alternatives, to explain to students why better nutritional habits are important, and to model good nutrition themselves. Teachers are also encouraged to incorporate some physical exercise into lessons, such as walking field trips in which students go up and down steps or around the campus.
"In place of rewards in the classroom, we have suggested that the teachers visit the local dollar store or use a vendor like Oriental Trading to purchase inexpensive items like pencils, erasers, and toys," Heinemeyer told Education World.
In another change, the school served pizza, french fries, and soda at the student recognition luncheon for four students each week. That food has been replaced by a gift certificate to a business such as a book or entertainment store.
Heinemeyer believes that the process of adopting a wellness policy itself provides good opportunities for authentic learning experiences for students. They may visit local fast-food restaurants, compare menus, check ingredients, and present their information to fellow students or other audiences.
Sharing the Message of Wellness
"The message of nutrition and wellness is consistently conveyed to the students via our Web site that provides newsletters every month on varied health topics," reports Kathleen Glindmeier, director of the Nutrition and Wellness Department for the Paradise Valley Unified School District and SNA member. "We have a dietetic internship program in which our interns go out when requested to provide nutrition education. Our menu also includes an article every month that features health and wellness topics."
Glindmeier's district in Phoenix, Arizona, has a wellness policy that was developed by a "team" made up of a teacher, parents, a nurse, a physical education teacher, a high school student, and three dietitians. The group received background about what needed to be included in the policy and broke it down into areas that should be addressed. The nutrition and wellness department uses its Web site to give parents and students access to newsletters, nutritional facts, and school menus.
"Snacks and lunch offerings have been changed to meet the Arizona nutrition standards," said Glindmeier. "More salads are being offered as well as some vegetarian options. Snacks include baked chips, water, sunflower seeds, trail mix, yogurt, and other healthy alternatives. Foods are sold in vending machines, but they also must meet the same nutrition standards."
Teachers have shared that they like not having high-sugar items served, and parents have also spoken highly of the changes. Because it is still early in the program, there are not currently a great number of physical education opportunities for students, but they are encouraged to exercise at home with their families.
"I advise schools to research many other wellness policies to see what other schools have done," stated Glindmeier. "Take the best ideas to develop a policy that would fit your school district's needs. Choose a committee with a good cross-section of individuals to represent all aspects of the school and who are committed to completing the process."
Better Nutrition À La Carte
"Our new wellness policy has mainly changed what we offer in our lunch line," observed Trina Caudle, principal of Skyline High School. "Besides a regular lunch, our school lunch program has an à la carte line. The à la carte line must follow strict nutritional guidelines. That means no soda, candy, and so on. Our snack vendor follows the same guidelines."
Some students at the Idaho Falls (Idaho) school haven't taken great notice of the changes in meal items because Skyline High has an open campus for lunch. They often bring their own drinks and snacks and aren't dependent exclusively on those offered by the school. The Idaho Falls School District Wellness Policy lists guidelines for food and drink items such as calories per serving, amounts of caffeine, sugar, and more.
"The policy does not include a list of pre-approved items, and this has been a challenge to our snack vending machine and groups selling food for fundraisers," Caudle explained. "They have to take the time to research the nutritional value themselves. Another challenge is the size of snacks or items. Our policy calls for snack sizes that often do not match products sold on the market."
Teachers have been supportive of the wellness policy, and Caudle says that students and parents have embraced it more eagerly than anticipated. In addition to better selections in the cafeteria, the policy calls for eighty percent of fundraisers to be on non-food or nutritional food items. Most fundraisers at Skyline focus on services.
"The students seem to like the new items in the à la carte line and the regular lunch line," Caudle shared. "Students also like the flavored waters and sports drinks over other sugared soda products. Although the policy did not change concessions at sporting events, we did change our menu items to include meal-type foods like chili, soup, and hamburgers instead of candy."
A Working Wellness Policy
Balance is essential in a feasible wellness and nutrition policy, advises Caudle. A strict policy may be difficult to enforce or to follow because there may a lack of appropriate and available foods, or students may choose not to eat the school lunch; a loose policy may not improve student eating habits at school. A pre-approved list of snack items is a useful tool.
"It is also helpful to allow older students to have more leeway and responsibility in making food and drink choices," Caudle added. "For example, our policy does allow for 20 percent of all vending items to be non-nutritious, at the high school level only. Education and fitness are also key components of any nutrition policy. Students need to be taught how and why to choose healthy foods, and they need more opportunities to be physically active."
By Cara Bafile
Reprinted with permission from Education World® Copyright ©2006