Schools Respond to Federal ‘Wellness’ Requirement

By Christina A. Samuels — June 13, 2006 5 min read
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Cupcakes brought in for special occasions, candy bars sold in vending machines, high-calorie muffins sold a la carte in the lunch line—all are now under scrutiny as school districts nationwide craft local “wellness” policies that a federal law says must go into effect by the start of the 2006-07 school year.

The $16 billion Child Nutrition Act, which covers the National School Lunch Program, imposed new requirements on federally funded schools for their lunches and breakfasts. Signed into law in June 2004, the legislation applies to regular public schools, charter schools, and some private schools.

The deadline to create a final policy is July 1, but the mandate does not include penalties for schools that do not adopt their policies by then.

Each district’s wellness policy must include goals for nutrition education and nutritional guidelines for all food available on campuses during the school day. Districts must also adopt guidelines for food brought into school and distributed to students, such as candy or other treats brought from home.

In addition, the wellness policies must discuss ways the districts can increase the activity level for students in all grades.

“This bill sets the stage and empowers parents, teachers, and local school districts to promote healthier foods in our school vending machines and snack bars,” Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said in a statement when President Bush signed the bill. Mr. Harkin was one of the prime supporters of such wellness policies.

Sample Policies Promoted

The Department of Agriculture, which oversees the school lunch program, along with breakfast and summer food programs, has provided guidance to school districts on complying with the requirements, including examples of wellness policies drafted by other districts.

Jean Daniel, the spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department’s Food and Nutrition Services program, said the department created a Web-based document that compiled 32 examples of how districts and schools faced and overcame nutrition concerns, available at http://teamnutrition.usda.gov/Resources/makingithappen.html.

Ms. Daniel said that the resources were not designed to give states strict blueprints to follow. “They are named ‘local’ wellness policies,” she said in a recent interview. The information was provided so that districts “can make the decisions that work best for them,” she said.

Parents, students, school boards, and school food-service directors were all expected to play a role in drafting such policies, with guidance from the USDA. School nutrition experts said they looked at the suggested policies as a way to start a conversation about healthy food choices, rather than an ending point.

“It’s more of an opportunity to start the discussion. It’s a beginning,” said Joyce Dougherty, the director of child-nutrition programs for the Oregon education department.

Gayden Carruth, the superintendent-in-residence at the American Association of School Administrators, in Arlington, Va. has worked with districts in 31 states since October specifically on the issue. Some common concerns are how to deal with vending machines, which raise money for school activities but offer potentially unhealthy snacks; how to deal with snacks brought from home or provided by teachers; and whether such policies should apply to students who bring their lunches from home. The federal mandate does not address such home-prepared meals.

“What we’ve done is provide them with sample policies,” said Ms. Carruth, who retired in 2005 as the superintendent of the 9,650-student Park Hill district near Kansas City, Mo. “The interesting thing to me is that almost all the districts we worked with had wellness policies” in various stages of development, she said.

But the federal requirement still prompted worries among some district administrators, who were unsure if they would have to make wholesale changes in the way they were handling food and physical activities.

Mark J. Innocenzi, the school health coordinator for Steps to a Healthier Pa.-Luzerne County, a healthy lifestyle-advocacy group, sits on the wellness-policy committees of 11 Pennsylvania school districts, including the 7,000-student Wilkes-Barre district and the school system of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Scranton. He was dubbed a “cupcake Nazi” by a local radio host after a parent called in, complaining that she would not be able to bring treats to her child’s classroom anymore.

But none of the policies he helped develop forbid any foods, Mr. Innocenzi said. “All we’re asking you do is be mindful,” he said. For instance, during a holiday or special occasion, a few pieces of candy may be appropriate, he said.

“But the days of giving out 35 pieces of candy on Halloween because every mother bought a sack? No,” he said.

Another major concern, Mr. Innocenzi said, was the federal law’s requirement for incorporating physical activity into the school day. Teachers, he said, “thought they would have to stop their educational lessons and say, ‘Everyone get up and do five jumping jacks.’ ”

Eliminate Sodas?

Mr. Innocenzi, a former elementary teacher, said he was compiling a database that would include ways to incorporate physical activity naturally into a curriculum—for instance, using pedometers in a math class, where students could add up the number of steps they take each day.

Marcia Smith, the food-service director for the 90,000-student Polk County, Fla., district, said her district’s original wellness policy suggested removing all vending machines from schools, including in the teachers’ lounges. After some outcry, the move was scaled back to eliminating the machines in areas to which students had access.

Ms. Smith said she is proud that the policy, which is slated to be approved soon by the district school board, has a provision to eliminate sodas in school buildings.

“Since day one, I’ve been trying to eliminate carbonated beverages. I do not think that school is the place for people to have access to carbonated beverages,” said Ms. Smith, a former president of the American School Food Service Association in Alexandria, Va., now known as the School Nutrition Association. “I feel like I can finally retire.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 2006 edition of Education Week as Schools Respond to Federal ‘Wellness’ Requirement


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