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Published in Print: January 5, 2005, as Some Schools Start ‘Dieting’ Ahead of U.S. Rules

Some Schools Start ‘Dieting’ Ahead of U.S. Rules

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If students in the Austin, Texas, school district get the munchies, they won’t find high-fat chips or calorie-laden sodas in their campus vending machines. On rainy days, elementary school pupils might do calisthenics in their classrooms while practicing their spelling. And after school, parents can occasionally hear from federal officials brought in to discuss how to keep children from gaining too much weight.

Administrators in the district have been working on health and nutrition efforts for the past two years, and school districts across the country will soon have to do the same. The reauthorized Child Nutrition Act, signed into law by President Bush last year, requires all districts to put local wellness plans in place by the start of the 2006-07 school year. ("Bush Signs School Lunch Reauthorization," July 14, 2004.)

Though the law spells out some aspects of what must be included in the wellness programs, the details are still up in the air, and districts are waiting for guidance from the Department of Agriculture, said Brenda Z. Greene, the director of school health programs for the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va.

“We want to send a consistent message” to districts about how to implement wellness plans so they can be successful, Ms. Greene said. “Let’s make sure we’re not doing busywork.”

Marcus Brownrigg, an Agriculture Department spokesman, said his agency plans to provide technical help and coordinate efforts by that department, the Department of Education, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the development of the wellness programs. The Agriculture Department, which administers the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs, intends to develop resources for states, including highlighting “best practices” and models from across the country.

But “we’re not going to do anything that’s prescriptive,” Mr. Brownrigg said. “It’s very important for the local school districts to develop their own programs.”

The $16 billion Child Nutrition Act, which includes the school nutrition programs, also addresses the problem of childhood obesity on a number of fronts. The law requires that districts appoint wellness councils, which must include a variety of members, such as students, teachers, community members, and representatives of the district’s food-service program.

The wellness plans drawn up by the councils must deal with the types of food sold in schools, physical education, and nutrition. Districts must also appoint monitoring officers to ensure compliance, said Barry Sackin, the staff vice president for public policy for the Alexandria Va.-based School Nutrition Association, formerly the American School Food Service Association.

Body-Fat Content

The School Nutrition Association and a number of other groups are working to help craft sample policies and recommendations for programs that are likely to be based on existing efforts, such as those in the 78,700-student Austin district.

“The national interest in this has absolutely blown me away,” Mr. Sackin said. “People want to do this, and they want to do it well.”

While $4 million in federal money has been set aside for such efforts, the money does not become available until 2006 because that’s when the plans must be in place, Mr. Sackin said.

But districts need to prepare now, he said.

“If they don’t get started now, it is getting close to the time where it will be difficult for them to meet the statutory deadline,” he said.

Some districts, such as Austin, may only have to make minor changes to adapt to the federal law. Texas already requires all its districts to have wellness programs in place, with mandates such as a ban on “food of minimal nutritional value” in elementary schools and a prescription of 135 minutes of physical education weekly for elementary pupils, said Tracy A. Diggs, the coordinator of student-health services for the Austin district.

But Austin has gone a step further by eliminating junk food from all its campuses during the school day and launching a pilot project to track statistics such as height, weight, and body fat for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 7th graders.

In 2003, 31 percent of 5th graders in the district were classified as obese, compared with 15 percent nationally for that age group, Ms. Diggs said. The district plans to follow those students for the next five years to see how the wellness program is working.

“We are already doing a lot of things,” Ms. Diggs said. “We can see the impact.”

Vol. 24, Issue 16, Page 26

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