Ten years ago, IASB produced an in-depth examination of childhood obesity, nutrition and physical activity as these issues relate to public school operations and school board policy-making. “Weighing Healthier Options” was published as a series of articles and reports in The Illinois School Board Journal, and the Illinois School Board Newsbulletin, supplemented with online resources at the IASB website.
A lot has happened since this report first appeared in March 2004. Significant developments – both voluntary and mandatory – have occurred as government, schools and the private sector have responded to this highly-charged debate.
The original series was divided into several parts:
• Snack foods, soft drinks
• Food services and fund-raising food sales
• Nutrition curriculum
• Physical education
The 2004 series and its accompanying resources and links encouraged school boards to start talking about nutrition and physical activity at school. The series began with an overview of the background on the obesity problem, focusing on overweight children. The first article, titled “Weighing Healthier Options,” looked at policy implications for school boards. Besides raising initial questions, it offered a quick look at what some school districts were doing in terms of setting new policy around nutrition. It also cited federal data on childhood obesity, which was the first time health officials referred to the issue as an “epidemic.”
An accompanying article, “Counter offensive: Refute, promote and donate,” looked at the soft drink industry’s response to being singled out by some critics as a leading cause of childhood obesity. It noted there were 20 states in addition to Illinois considering legislation to set stricter nutrition standards for beverages. It mentioned, as well, that the American Academy of Pediatrics had recently urged school districts to consider restricting the sale of soft drinks to “safeguard against health problems that result from over consumption.” A sidebar, “School nutrition rules, regulations,” laid out the statutory and regulatory requirements related to school nutrition, mainly as established through the national school meals programs.
An article followed that looked at school cafeterias and the adjunct situations where other food is introduced into the school environment, including: concession stands, fund-raisers and classroom rewards. Noting that the National School Lunch Program was nearly 60 years old, and that school cafeterias were serving $4.7 billion worth of meals each year, this article questioned whether those existing school meals program helped or hindered the fight against childhood obesity.
Nutrition in the classroom was the focus of a subsequent article. In the story, “Do nutrition policies, standards measure up?” IASB offered sample language that school districts could consult if they wished to ensure that their nutrition education policies stayed consistent, from “the boardroom to classroom; to lunchroom; to schoolyard; and home.”
In an accompanying piece, “If Johnny can’t read, maybe he’s hungry,” the Journal also looked at a well-established link between good nutrition and student achievement, as well as student behavior. These articles, plus an article in the Newsbulletin, “Nutrition education mandated by law,” were added to the Weighing Healthier Options archive on IASB’s website.
Coverage followed with a close examination of the role that physical activity plays in curbing childhood obesity in the article, “Making fitness count.” In the final article of the series, IASB addressed the problem from the aspect of what school boards could do through policy, what administrators could do through better practices, and what parents and the community could do through habit and lifestyle changes. It contained information on balancing healthy kids vs. healthy fiscal reports in “Financing fitness: Keeping kids, budgets healthy.”
That marked the end of the IASB publications’ series on childhood obesity and nutrition relative to schools, but not the end of the project. Printed copies of the entire “Weighing Healthier Options” report were made available. IASB’s website has continued to maintain a compilation of the topical child nutrition and wellness issues, and updated source and resource list, at https://www.iasb.com/healthy / .
2014: Ten Years Later
A lot has changed in the realm of school nutrition and wellness in the decade since ‘Weighing Healthier Options’ appeared, both in terms of legislation and regulations governing school meals. Of greatest significance was the new federal legislation adopted in 2010 on the use of so-called “smart snacks” in schools.
Illinois lawmakers joined the effort in 2007, when it required local school wellness policies in every school district. The requirement was finalized in regulations adopted by the Illinois State Board of Education in October 2007, based on the requirements of Public Act 094-0199. These locally established wellness policies are designed to set guidelines to cover: nutrition for all foods sold on the school campus during the school day, plus guidelines on nutrition education and physical activity. The state board has partnered with Illinois Nutrition Education and Training (NET) to provide model policies, plus an action plan to follow for implementing an effective local wellness policy, and more. All of these resources are available at http://www.kidseatwell.org/ LocalWellnessPolicy.html .
The landmark federal law imposed nutrition standards in 2010 for all foods sold in schools, codified under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, or Public Law 111-296. This led to new federal standards being put in place last year to remove snack foods from schools. The changes included a tightening of fat, calorie, sugar, and sodium limits for any foods sold during the school day. And an earlier set of regulations adopted under the same law set higher standards for the nutritional content of free and low-cost school breakfasts and lunches subsidized by the federal government.
Both that law and the new regulations are part of the federal government’s effort to combat childhood obesity rates. Unfortunately, those rates have remained high over the past decade nationwide. Rates among teenagers have increased, while overall rates for kids did not change but plateaued. Childhood obesity rates in Illinois have also stayed high, but were beginning a slight decline when last documented in 2013, both for teens and for children overall.
Evidence of the state’s status on childhood obesity came in a 2013 report, “F as in Fat: How obesity threatens America’s Future,” by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The report showed a 19.3 percent obesity rate among 10- to 17-year-olds in Illinois in 2011, which ranked the state ninth for childhood obesity in that age group. That same age group had an obesity rating above 20 percent in 2007. The same report gave Illinois a much better rating on obesity among high school students. It showed an 11.6 percent obesity rate for high school students in 2011, ranking the state 23 rd in obesity for that age group. That was down from a rate of more than 13 percent for Illinois high schoolers in 2007.
Stricter regulations, policies, practices, and greater public awareness are all helping to address childhood obesity, nutrition and wellness. The extent of success – or failure – to change outcomes varies according to the studies or reports and the organizations that compile them. The heart of the original research that was contained in “Weighing Healthier Options” remains timely and intact. IASB will continue to update its readers on these issues and developments.