By Arianne Corbett, RD 2015-07-24 03:23:17
HEALTHY SCHOOL ENVIRONMENTS An unknown country singer named Carrie Underwood wins Season 4 of “American Idol.” “Twilight,” a novel about vampires, is published. President George W. Bush begins his second term. A video-sharing website called YouTube is launched in the United States. Hurricane Katrina devastates the Gulf Coast. And school nutrition professionals across the country are introduced to the concept of the “local school wellness policy.” To some, those 10-year milestones may seem much older, while for others, the time has flown by. Regardless, in their own ways, all those historical happenings have retained some enduring staying power, not the least of them being the efforts to promote school environments that prioritize wellness education in all areas, without contradictory messages. For many communities, the local school wellness policy requirement presented the first opportunity to look at school-based wellness practices and fueled a decade’s worth of healthy changes. Some districts used the policy as a jumping-off point for innovative changes and never looked back. Other districts created a policy and filed it in a drawer. Most districts fall somewhere in between. Now, 10 years later, where does your district land on the spectrum? First, let’s reflect on what started it all. In 2004, Congress passed the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, which required school districts participating in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) to create local school wellness policies by SY 2006-07. The new wellness policies were required in response to the recognition that schools play a critical role in promoting student health, preventing childhood obesity and combating problems associated with poor nutrition and physical inactivity. The details of the wellness policies were deliberately left to local school districts to develop, in order to address the individual needs of each local education authority (LEA), but the policy was required to address nutrition, nutrition education and physical activity. The passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA) added new provisions for local school wellness policies regarding their implementation and evaluation, as well as a public report on their progress. On February 26, 2014, USDA published a proposed rule that followed up on the HHFKA provisions. At press time, however, the final rule had not yet been released. Keep checking USDA’s Local School Wellness Policy web page (www.fns.usda.gov/school-meals/local-school-wellness-policy) for additional details and updates. There have been a lot changes in school nutrition these last 10 years. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the need for schools and districts to prioritize children’s health by creating an environment for them to learn healthy habits that, with a little encouragement, can last a lifetime. The cafeteria cannot be the only place in the school community that spreads this message. Healthy school meals must be supported through education, role modeling and consistent standards. It’s not easy, but it doesn’t have to be an insurmountable challenge, either. In this article, SN profiles the journeys of three districts and their efforts to create—and maintain—local wellness policies. In addition, we’ll provide some advice for all LEAs seeking to broaden and strengthen their existing policies. Aim for Pie in the Sky Daviess County Public Schools (DCPS) in Owensboro, Ky., enrolls approximately 11,400 students in 18 schools. Owensboro is described as Kentucky’s “urban oasis”—a progressive small town with big city amenities. For School Nutrition Director Lisa Sims, it was a new Kentucky state law regarding competitive foods that spurred movement on DCPS’ first wellness policy. The district set out to implement a policy with higher standards than those written into the state law. “We knew we needed a comprehensive plan to make it truly successful,” recounts Sims. “You can’t just change how [the students] are eating, you have to change their lifestyles.” The district pulled together an all-inclusive wellness committee consisting of students, parents, school nurses, physical education teachers, building administrators and representatives from the school nutrition team. The committee was given an uncommon directive: Don’t think about budget. Think about what the kids need. “We started off with great administrative support and a pie-in-the-sky attitude,” she recalls. “We developed the policy with the mindset of doing what’s best for kids. We said, ‘Let’s put it on paper and see if we can make it happen.’” And so they did. The committee laid out strong goals for the district, such as requiring classroom celebrations and rewards to meet the same nutrition guidelines as vending machines. Physical activity was given the same priority as healthy eating. For example, the group decided students would benefit from the availability of a walking trail at each school site—and because they were a wellness priority, trails were added to new facility designs and incorporated into construction and renovation projects. Today, all 18 buildings have the walking trails, which have become a part of daily school life, helping students, parents, teachers and staff meet physical activity goals. “I see people on the trails every time I visit a school,” Sims explains. “Teachers use them for physical activity breaks during the day. Many of our clubs come and walk in the morning.” Sims even developed a special grab ‘n’ go breakfast program for walkers, providing a reimbursable breakfast and a small water bottle to rehydrate. Lest you think the effort has been all sunshine and rainbows, the DCPS wellness committee has faced its share of challenges along the way. “Every person has to give. I had to give a little on things too, but that’s OK,” Sims concedes. For one administrator, restricting soda machine availability even to staff and other adults was a particular sticking point. He eventually agreed, through consensus, to adopt the policy. Once he saw it in action, Sims relates, he was proud to be a part of a decision to improve the health of school employees and community members. Today, that administrator is a superintendent who advocates for strong, effective wellness policies. After a decade of emphasizing wellness from a committed, unified base, DCPS has been able to take new meal pattern and Smart Snack rules in stride. “We were ahead of the game on many of the requirements. We just had to tweak some pieces,” explains Sims, crediting the foundation provided through the wellness policy. “It definitely helped us!” Jumping in to craft and support wellness-related initiatives has changed student, staff and faculty perceptions about what it means to be healthy. Site by Site Success Prince William County (Va.) Public Schools (PWCS) serves more than 85,000 students in 94 schools. The district is located some 20 miles outside of Washington, D.C., and is the second largest school system in Virginia. The work of its wellness committee hasn’t always been easy, reports Serena Suthers, MS, RD, SNS, director of School Food and Nutrition. “When we first started 10 years ago, people were calling us the ‘Cupcake Committee’ and the ‘Food Police,’” she recounts, admitting, “When we first started, we thought there was no way we would be able to make these changes.” Suthers describes a key aspect of her district’s eventual success: site-based stakeholders. Rather than one district-level group, every school has its own wellness committee. Each school committee includes a representative from the school administration, one from the physical education department, the cafeteria manager, the school nurse, other staff members, parents and students. Committees meet quarterly to discuss strategies to help their school incorporate more physical activity and promote healthy eating habits. These school-based committees have facilitated stronger ties between the school nutrition department and the greater school community. In fact, before the establishment of these groups, the cafeteria manager had never been involved in an inter-department school team! Because the manager was typically the only person on a PWCS school campus who wasn’t one of the principal’s direct reports, a “them versus me” mentality often prevailed. Since the advent of the school-based wellness committee, however, the cafeteria is more integrated in the life of the school. Managers have developed better relationships and become involved in school events and activities. Problems in the cafeteria are now problems for the school. For example, if a school site is struggling with breakfast participation, the committee works together to find solutions. In such a large district, Suthers uses a district-level committee to communicate and build consensus for district-wide initiatives. Recently, PWCS incorporated the Smart Snacks in School nutrition standards into their policy. While the district had already removed diet sodas and other artificially sweetened beverages from campuses, Smart Snacks would have allowed them in high schools. The PWCS wellness committee decided to continue only providing 100% juice, milk and water to district teens. “We are a group of like-minded people,” says Suthers. “The committee provides a stronger base and more support for doing what we think is important; those things that we think are best practices for health and wellness at schools.” This commitment to wellness can be seen in all areas of the district. Policy language that once included words like “should” and “consider” has been revised and strengthened. Many elements of the policy that were merely considerations when the initial policy was written are now required elements. Nutrition education is now mandatory for all students in grades K-10; minimum amounts of physical activity and physical education are spelled out in the policy; and no food-based fundraisers are allowed before or during the school day. PWCS has taken this commitment a step further by incorporating the work of the wellness committees into the district’s strategic plan. One district goal reads, “The teaching, learning and working environment is caring, safe and healthy , and values human diversity.” The plan itself requires all schools to maintain wellness committees. “We are very fortunate to have a superintendent that is student-focused,” Suthers acknowledges. “He is focused on education, but he understands that students must have their physical needs met before they can be educated.” Wellness in the strategic plan means shared responsibility for policy implementation—and shared credit for its success. Celebrate One Victory at a Time The San Marcos (Calif.) Unified School District (SMUSD) serves 20,000 students in 19 schools. Though located in a San Diego suburb, the district incorporates a wide range of communities, including some rural and small towns. Executive Director of Child Nutrition Services Dena England arrived on the job one month after the first wellness policy went into effect and was subsequently pronounced the leader of all things wellness. “I was told, ‘Oh, by the way, you are the chairperson for the district health council,’” she recalls with a laugh. Under England’s leadership, the district health council spent the first year working through three subcommittees to develop procedures to implement the nutrition, physical activity and nutrition education pieces of the wellness policy. “As we proceeded with the work, we knew communication was key to implementation,” England stresses. The district obtained a grant from the California Department of Education to help foster communication. Another key was collaborative outreach. An early partnership with the Community Action Council of San Marcos City remains strong to this day. Together they created a successful annual wellness fair to promote the policy to the community at large. The fair featured BMI and blood pressure screenings, physical activity challenges and healthy food taste tests. For the first five years, it drew crowds of more than 1,000 people! Although the fair eventually came to its natural end, it evolved into more individual school-based activities. “The train was moving quickly at first, now we are moving up a mountain,” concedes England about the effort to maintain momentum. Nonetheless, “Even up a mountain, we are still moving forward,” she insists. Another community collaboration, this one with a local farmer, allowed SMUSD to provide a farmers market for students. Youngsters first learned about the importance of fruits and vegetables, then enjoyed a “shopping” trip to select items from a variety of fresh produce. The idea was for them to share items with their families, but, “Half of the produce would be eaten before recess!” reports England enthusiastically. When the original farmer could no longer participate in the program, the Child Nutrition Services Department made the commitment to develop and operate an inhouse farmer’s market program. At the conclusion of a successful pilot in SY 2014-15, the program will be rolled out to all elementary schools next year. As time has passed, England says she is starting to see how the school community has come to not only accept, but also expect wellness programs and initiatives in their schools. Rising high school students are requesting the student-based nutrition advisory councils they had at lower grade levels. New middle school students want the salad bars they know and love from elementary school. England even sees teachers policing one another on wellness policy compliance. The work of the wellness policy and district health council also has prepared SMUSD for the more recent changes to meal and snack standards. Menus attract students to reimbursable meals instead of snacks. Fundraisers focus on physical activities like fun runs and turkey trots. Child Nutrition Services even controls the purchasing for student-run school stores. “We were way ahead of Smart Snacks, and it was so nice. Did we have to tweak some products? Absolutely. But, when we started to look at [the nutrition standards] in detail, we were there. Things were already in place!” England affirms. At SMUSD, “We celebrate one victory at a time!” she adds emphatically. Those victories keep adding up and creating a culture that supports and promotes wellness throughout the district. The Takeaway Although the three districts in this article have all been working on wellness for 10+years and have comprehensive policies in place, SN knows that not every district enjoys similar success—yet. Here are some suggestions from our featured directors to help you achieve wellness policy success and prepare your district for upcoming changes to wellness policy requirements. Broaden the reach of your wellness council. Many school districts experienced the fast-moving-train phenomenon England described at SMUSD. There’s lots of excitement and energy early on, when wellness policies were new and fresh, and then as members changed jobs, focused efforts on different initiatives or simply lost interest, committee members began to dwindle. Now is a great time to begin a new recruitment initiative! Required changes to meal patterns, competitive foods regulations and the wellness policy itself provide an ideal opportunity for a new crop of individuals to weigh in and contribute to the district’s wellness efforts. Seek out those in your school and district who have an interest in healthy students, an ability to make decisions and authority through existing leadership roles in the school or community. Also find those with the knowledge, skills and resources you need for this group to be effective. Explore new sources for potential partners, such as local health departments, hospitals, the business community, the parks and recreation department and custodial and maintenance staff. For more suggestions on who should serve on your renewed wellness committee, check out this month’s exclusive online bonus content at www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazine/bonuswebcontent. Add school-level committees. If you only have a district-level committee, consider efforts to establish these at each school site, as well. This can engage more champions and result in better communication between the school nutrition department and other staff. School-level committees also can help groom the next district-level wellness champions. How do you define differences between a district-level group and school site committees? Consider these examples: ■ District-Level: Update and modify policy. Identify gaps and locate resources to address them. Conduct monitoring and evaluation activities to assess implementation and effectiveness of district wellness policies. For example, a district-level committee may review policies and procedures to ensure all fundraisers meet Smart Snacks regulations. ■ School-Level: Focus on the nutrition and physical activity needs of students and staff in a specific building. Implement programs and activities to meet these needs. For example, a school wellness committee might work together to coordinate a 5K fun run to raise money for the school’s music program. Assess and reassess your policy. The wellness policy is a living document. It is designed to evolve over time. Compare your wellness policy to model policies and monitor progress toward best practice guidelines. This will help your district build on existing accomplishments and identify your desired path forward. Many tools are available to help with assessment of your policy and assessment of existing practices, such as those from CDC, the Institute of Child Nutrition, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and others. Aim high, but develop a plan to get there. Go ahead, set lofty goals! Adding long-range goals to the wellness policy is essential for developing your roadmap for the future. Pie in the sky goals can become a reality; they need only be shared goals the committee believes are important. Explore grant opportunities and other funding resources. Remember, in-kind donations of time and resources may be just as valuable as dollars. Don’t overlook the value of volunteers from the local hospital to staff a wellness fair or the donation of planters and potting soil from the hardware store to help you start a school garden. Update your policy now, not later. New federal requirements, based on USDA’s proposed rule, are coming soon. Begin the process to update your policy now. As you update, discuss ways to incorporate wellness into your district’s strategic plan and other school accountability and improvement efforts. This will improve accountability and spread the responsibility for wellness policy compliance throughout the district. Take a look at USDA’s School Nutrition and Wellness Resources database (http://tinyurl.com/USDAwellness) for more information. Also, visit the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s website (www.healthiergeneration.org) for its model wellness policy template that is said to be compliant with the expected new requirements of the law. Communicate progress and celebrate wins. Aside from the fact that public input and notification will soon be a required element of your policy, it’s a great idea! The more that is shared with students, parents, staff, faculty, administration and the community, the more buy-in is built for wellness initiatives. Celebrate achievements, awards and every positive wellness initiative at parent meetings and back-to-school nights. Include a wellness update in faculty meetings. Create an inclusive culture that supports and rewards wellness and helps individuals take pride in healthy environments. School Nutrition hopes that these stories and recommendations inspire and motivate you as you continue to create healthy school environments for all the students you serve. Whether you’re a “sprinter,” a “jogger” or a “walker” when it comes to wellness policy development and implementation, keep the faith that, with determination, you will cross that finish line. Arianne Corbett is managing director of Leading Health, LLC, in Tampa, Fla., and a former manager of nutrition advocacy at SNA. Illustrations by jiunlimited.com. As we look back at 10 years of local school wellness policy progress, we also look forward to the next stage. BONUS WEB CONTENT As you prepare for the new federal rule regarding local school wellness policies, you’ll want to tap several more resources School Nutrition has gathered to support your efforts. Visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazine/bonuswebcontent to access suggestions for potential wellness committee members; a summary of law, based on the proposed rule; and resources for assessment tools.
Published by School Nutrition Association. View All Articles.