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Weighing Healthier Options

Do nutrition policies, standards measure up?
by James Russell
Illinois School Board Journal, July/August 2004

James Russell is IASB director of communications.

Education that does not address health misses the heart of the matter." - C. Everett Koop, former U.S. Surgeon General

Weighing Healthier OptionsEducation that does not address health misses the heart of the matter." - C. Everett Koop, former U.S. Surgeon General

It should be obvious by now, after reading portions or all of this continuing series of stories, reports and resources on the issue of childhood obesity, that schools can and do play a vital role in children's health. In fact, they have a major stake in the health choices made on behalf of students of all ages.

By practice or policy, or both, some schools, unfortunately, have been contributing to rather than helping to curb or eradicate the problem of childhood obesity.

How ambitious or reluctant a school district becomes in health education is a matter of choice and policy. So how can school boards as policymakers make a difference?

School nutrition policy, according to the Illinois Nutrition Education and Training program, is needed to:

  • Demonstrate that nutrition is important and that the district is committed to improvement;
  • Support and validate nutrition education programs and activities;
  • Provide direction for change, laying out what is important to the district;
  • Help integrate new programs and processes in ongoing school activities;
  • Increase public knowledge about the facts and issues; and
  • Assign accountability.

Uh oh. There's that word again: accountability. Ugh. Do we have to be accountable for everything involving students? Well, in a way, we are, like it or not.

By establishing and enforcing policies that demonstrate commitment to children's health, school boards can and will make a difference. Consider this sample policy from the National Association of State Boards of Education and think about how your district has or will be considering these options for an instructional program design:

"Nutrition education topics shall be integrated within the sequential, comprehensive health education program taught at every grade level, pre-kindergarten through 12th. The nutrition education program shall focus on students' eating behaviors, be based on theories and methods proven effective by published research, and be consistent with the state's health education standards. Nutrition education shall be designed to help students learn:

  • Nutritional knowledge, including but not limited to the benefits of healthy eating, essential nutrients, nutritional deficiencies, principles of healthy weight management, the use and misuse of dietary supplements, and safe food preparation, handling and storage,
  • Nutrition-related skills, including but not limited to planning a healthy meal, understanding and using food labels, and critically evaluating nutrition information, misinformation, and commercial food advertising, and
  • How to assess one's personal eating habits, set goals for improvement and achieve those goals.

"Nutrition education instructional activities shall stress the appealing aspects of healthy eating and be participatory, developmentally appropriate and enjoyable. The program shall engage families as partners in their children's education.

"The school health council shall assess all nutrition education curricula and materials for accuracy, completeness, balance, and consistency with the state's/district's educational goals and standards. Materials developed by food marketing boards or food corporations shall be examined for inappropriate commercial messages.

"Staff responsible for nutrition education shall be adequately prepared and regularly participate in professional development activities to effectively deliver the nutrition education program as planned. Preparation and professional development activities shall provide basic knowledge of nutrition, combined with skill practice, in program-specific activities, and instructional techniques and strategies designed to promote healthy eating habits.

"School personnel shall not offer food as a performance incentive or reward and shall not withhold food from students as punishment.

"Nutrition instruction shall be closely coordinated with the food service program and other components of the school health program. Nutrition concepts shall be integrated into the instruction of other subject areas.

"School instructional staff shall collaborate with agencies and groups conducting nutrition education in the community to send consistent messages to students and their families. Guest speakers invited to address students shall receive appropriate orientation to the relevant policies of the school/district.

"School staff are encouraged to cooperate with other agencies and community groups to provide opportunities for student volunteer work related to nutrition, such as assisting with food recovery efforts and preparing nutritious meals for house-bound people. School officials should also disseminate information to parents, students and staff about community programs that offer nutrition assistance to families.

"School staff are encouraged to model healthy eating behaviors. Schools should offer wellness programs that include personalized instruction about healthy eating and physical activity."

If that sounds like everyone is expecting everything from the schools, well, they probably are. And much of this sample policy better describes how school staff can integrate nutrition education into the process, rather than merely stating board policy or district values and beliefs.

But when nutrition education is properly framed, modeled and reinforced from the boardroom to classroom to lunchroom to schoolyard and home, chances are good that school will have helped its students make essential life-altering decisions - for now, and hopefully, for a lifetime.

Sources:

"Healthy Schools," National Association of State Boards of Education

"How school policy makers can make a difference," Illinois Nutrition Education & Training program

Weighing Healthier Options

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