Schools offer an ideal setting for obesity prevention due to the large number of students that can be targeted simultaneously and the opportunities for developing a health-promoting environment1. In fact, a meta-analysis of the obesity prevention literature revealed that 84% of prevention programs have been conducted in the school setting2. Existing programs such as physical education, school breakfast and lunch programs provide a foundation to improve and expand health promotion practices. Moreover, more than 30 million children access meals through the USDA school lunch program every day.
With such broad access to America’s youth and the opportunity to directly promote sustained health behaviors, school lunch programs have great potential to positively impact the health and well-being of millions of students. Most critically, pro-health policies in schools can support the reduction of obesity, overweight, and the related morbidities such as Type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease. These chronic conditions, once known only among adults, are becoming increasingly prevalent among children.3 Beyond the reduction of health risks, improving the nutritional value of school lunches may also have cognitive and behavioral benefits for students, particularly for those who do not receive adequate nutrition at home.4
Federal policy has led to obesity prevention efforts in the schools in an attempt to create healthier school environments. In 2004, Public Law 108-265, the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 required schools to develop and implement a local wellness policy in order to promote student health. The local wellness policy required schools to set goals for nutrition education, physical activity, and other activities to promote wellness. In addition, schools were required to develop nutrition guidelines for any food sold on campus including, but not limited to, meals, vending machines, and fundraising. More recently, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 provides additional federal regulation and funding to support nutritious foods served in school as well as additional support for local wellness policies. Federal support for locally organized health policies rightly ensures that schools can flexibly develop lunch menus and health programs which are sensitive to their specific needs and adaptive to local resources. The Healthy Kids Act, for example, has provisions to encourage school gardens and to source locally farmed produce to school cafeterias. Such programs have great promise for improving the healthy offerings in the cafeteria, and are already being considered by school administrators in our area.5
While serving as a mental health specialist for several cohorts of local, family-based obesity interventions, parents have reported frustration with the unhealthy food served in schools. From candy bar sales for fundraising to vending machines serving chips and soda, parents have reported that their efforts to encourage healthy eating for their children are diminished when their child goes to school. Ultimately, coordinated efforts from parents and school administrators will need to change such policies at the individual school level. However, the federal government can support positive change among local policy makers and school leaders by providing enough funding for healthy school meals and by establishing strong national policies such as the recent Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act or First Lady Obama’s Let’s Move initiative. This type of support is crucial to creating a health-promoting environment within the school setting. Given the multiple demands and academic pressures that schools face, health promotion may fall to the wayside unless it is linked to this kind of federal accountability and funding.
--Cheyenne L. Hughes and Caroline Mullen
School Psychology students, College of Education
1 Story, M., Kaphingst, K.M., & French, S. (2006). The role of child care settings in obesity precention. The Future of Children, 16, 109-142.
2 Stice, E., Shaw, H., & Marti, C.N. (2006). A meta-analytic review of obesity prevention programs for children and adolescents: The skinny on interventions that work. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 667-691.
3 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2008). Nutrition and the health of young people. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/HealthyYouth/nutrition/facts.htm
4 Taras, H. (2005). Nutrition and student performance at school. Journal of School Health. 75, 199-213.
5 Martinez, A. (2010, April 10). School lunch: Fresh and local? It could happen. The Morning Call. Retrieved from http://www.mcall.com