Getting Junk Food Out of School: How Your School District Wellness Policy Can Help
|March 8, 2013||Posted by Stacy under Junk food in school|
The single worst thing to happen to my kids’ eating habits was starting school. A bold statement, I know, but it’s true. It isn’t like they’d never had cheap, neon-colored cupcakes and artificially infused candy before walking through the doors. But with their enrollment (beginning with preschool) came a dramatic boost in their consumption of low-quality sugary treats and other highly processed blech. With all the birthday celebrations, holiday parties, ice cream and candy rewards, bake sales, and sugar-fueled after-hours events, school has started to feel like one big junk food fest (SEE: Rant of the Day: Please Stop Feeding My Kids Junk Food at School!).
Right now, across the country, a lot of positive things are happening with school food. Thanks to higher United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards (new as of July 2012), school meals have gotten healthier. The USDA’s proposed competitive food rules (scheduled to go into effect in Fall 2013) promise to bring healthy changes to food and drinks sold in a la carte lines, vending machines and school stores. However, foods served at classroom parties and at other school functions aren’t covered under these guidelines (even though they do compete with the federally subsidized meals program, at least in my mind). Thanks to this major loophole, junk food has the potential to remain alive and well in many of our schools.
Enter the school district wellness policy. Every district participating in the federal meals program is required to have a written policy that includes nutrition guidelines for all foods available at school (hello, birthday cupcakes!) as well as nutrition education, physical activity and more. A strong policy can be extremely helpful when it comes to transforming the food culture at a school. After a year of attempting to give classroom parties at my son’s elementary school a healthy makeover, I’ve concluded that it can be difficult to make real change without one.
The fact that all schools must have wellness policies is a good thing. But it’s far from a slam dunk. Because, you see, not all of them are created equal. The policy in my school district, for example, is extremely weak. What’s more, it hasn’t been updated since its conception in 2006. This technically puts us in violation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Fortunately, the district is aware of the problem and has agreed to let me (as part of a group of school administrators, staff, teachers, community members and parents) help revise it. I’m REALLY hoping that this will be an opportunity to create firm rules about classroom parties and food rewards.
Whenever someone comes to me for advice on tackling junk food in school, I tell them to start by digging up their school district wellness policy. I found mine posted on my school district website. If you can’t find yours online, call your district office and ask for a copy.
Once you have the district policy in hand, you can compare it with this federal Wellness Policy Requirement Checklist to see how it measures up. Or, you can use the Yale Rudd Center’s online Wellness School Assessment Tool to assess the policy’s strength and comprehensiveness. (I used it and my school district’s policy got an “F” as a grade…which shows how badly it needs to be revised!).
If you discover that the policy is strong and supports your own healthy views, you can use it as ammo when talking to other parents, teachers and school officials. If the policy doesn’t meet federal requirements, then you should alert district administrators that it needs updating and (if possible) offer to help with the process (for example, by serving on the committee charged with revising it or providing links to model school wellness policies and other online resources).
It also is a good idea to check to see if your state has a policy on foods served on school grounds. Some, like Connecticut and Nevada, have rules that apply to classroom food. To find out if yours does, take a look at the School Food Environment section of the National Association of State Board of Education’s State School Healthy Policy Database. On the same database, you also can find out if your state has any additional requirements for school district wellness policies. To see all the health and wellness regulations for your state, go to the View By State tab and search away.
Unfortunately, schools that have strong wellness policies don’t always do a good job of promoting and enforcing them. If that’s the situation in your district, you should contact the school official in charge of the policy, notify him or her of the problem, and file a complaint. For more information, check out How to Enforce a Wellness Policy: A Guide for Parents and Communty Advocates from the National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity.
Check out the School Wellness Policies section on my Resources page for more helpful links.
Do your kids get a lot of junk food at school? If so, does it frustrate you? What, if anything, have you done to fight back? I love hearing your stories (honestly, they make me feel less alone on this journey!). So please scroll down and leave a comment!