What to Do If Your School Wellness Policy Isn’t Being Enforced: A Guide for Parents
|April 5, 2013||Posted by Stacy under Improving school food, Junk food in school, School policy, Wellness policy|
Every time I pick up my kids from school only to discover that they’ve been chowing down on brownies or chocolate-covered Oreos or candy (which seems to happen at least twice a week), I can’t help but think: In the midst of an obesity crisis, why are other people being allowed to shovel my kids full of unhealthy food at school? And what can I do to stop it?!?
Fact is, there are federal laws designed to help stem the flow of junk food in our schools. Thanks to the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004, every school district participating in the federally reimbursed school meals program is required to have a school wellness policy that covers all foods served and sold on school campuses. However, the specific content of these policies is determined by individual school districts (though individual states may have rules about the school food environment that districts must follow). As a result, some school wellness policies are much stronger than others.
Ok, so let’s say your school happens to have a strong wellness policy that, say, prohibits the use of food rewards and limits the number of school parties. Great! you think. Well, at least on paper. But if the policy isn’t being promoted or enforced, it really isn’t much use, is it? Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happening at countless schools across the country. All too often, parents and school staff, all the way up to the principal, don’t even know that their school wellness policy exists.
So, you may ask, why are schools not required to implement and enforce their wellness policies? Technically, they are. According to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, your state board of education is responsible for monitoring and ensuring that your school wellness policy is followed. By law, these wellness policy reviews should happen every three years. But here’s the glitch: No federal funding has been authorized for these reviews and most states don’t have the money to pay for them. And since there’s no penalty for failure to comply with the USDA regulations? Yup, you guessed it: After being written, many school wellness policies are set aside and forgotten. And in all likelihood, no government agency is doing anything about it.
I’m a firm believer that strong policies covering all food served at school (from the cafeteria to the classroom) are crucial to creating a healthy school environment. But there must be regular auditing and accountability. Just imagine if the government created speed limits but did not monitor or enforce them, or even post the speed limits for motorists to see? How fast do you think people would go?!? Exactly.
According to a 2009 study called Factors Influencing the Implementation of School Wellness Policies in the United States, it’s important to have a school district wellness committee or other group to create, implement and oversee the school district wellness policy. The group should meet regularly with each other and perhaps quarterly with the school district leader, explains lead author Elizabeth Budd, M.P.H. Tapping into existing committees and resources (like the Parent Teacher Association, physical education teachers, and parents and community members with pertinent knowledge or skills) for help also can be key.
What if you have a school district wellness committee—but they don’t seem to have the desire or power to keep the school in compliance? Unfortunately, it happens. And if it does, I recommend following the steps outlined in NPLAN’s How to Enforce a Wellness Policy: A Guide for Parents and Community Advocates. If that doesn’t work, you may want to contact and file a complaint with your state board of education. Chances are, it wouldn’t result in your school losing its federal school meal reimbursements. But it could put pressure on the district. Contacting your local newspaper and asking it to cover the school district’s failure to enforce its wellness policy is another option.
For now, our best hope is to get tough and insist that our school wellness policies be promoted and enforced. Long-time school food advocate Dana Woldow of PeachSF.org agrees: “Wellness policy enforcement will happen only if parents demand it.” That means not letting school officials brush us off and refusing to back down. And when the going gets tough and you’re starting to have doubts, be sure to remember: The health of your child—and many others—is at stake. The federal wellness policy regulations exist for a reason. And schools that have wellness policies should be held responsible for following them.
Have you checked out your local school district wellness policy? Do you feel like it’s being complied with? If not, what do you plan to do about it? Details in the comments section, please!