School is a vital place to teach children how to lead healthy lives. Teachers can take advantage of their "captive audience" by nurturing an environment that sets healthy examples and makes an impression on children from a young age.
According to a recent report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, elementary schools across the nation commonly serve meals that do not meet current dietary guidelines, offer their students junk food and soda, and provide little time for physical activity. In the 2007-2008 school year, 62% of public elementary school students were able to buy unhealthy competitive food and drinks—such as candy, cookies, french fries, and soda—through vending machines, school stores, and à la carte cafeteria lines. In addition, only 34% of students attended a school that annually evaluated all students’ physical fitness levels. [pdf]
Recent studies have found that children who are more physically active tend to perform better academically and that limiting or sacrificing physical education does not improve academic performance. For example, a national study conducted in 2006 found that adolescents who reported participation in school activities, like physical education and team sports, or sports with their parents, were 20% more likely than their sedentary peers to earn an A in English or math.
Source: Nelson MC, Gordon-Larson P. Physical activity and sedentary behavior patterns are associated with selected adolescent health risk behaviors. Pediatrics 2006; 117:1281-1290.
Currently, Tennessee legislation mandates 90 minutes of physical activity per week during the instructional school day.
In 2000, Tennessee became the first state in the U.S. that required its schools to implement the Coordinated School Health model developed by the Centers for Disease Control.
The Office of Coordinated School Health is an initiative to improve student health and support the connection between academic achievement and lifetime wellness, established by the Tennessee Department of Education in 2001. It aims to improve student performance and encourage healthy living by providing resources to at-risk students and creating a support network of families, communities, and schools. The Coordinated School Health approach consists of eight main components: health education, physical education/physical activity, health services, nutrition services, health promotion for staff, counseling and psychological services, healthy school environment and student/parent/community involvement.
CSH in TN has documented a decrease in overweight/obesity rates in children: from 40.9% (2007-08 school year) to 39.0% ( 2008-2009 school year). This represents over 8,000 fewer children classified as overweight or obese.
The Tennessee Coordinated School Health Report 2008-2009 Executive Summary [pdf]
Food in Schools
Many schools send mixed messages; while they may encourage physical education and fitness, they still offer processed food with limited nutrition at mealtimes. In addition, foods like candy and cookies are often used to reward students, counteracting efforts to teach students the importance of nutrition. This can also lead to poor eating habits since it teaches kids to eat when they are not hungry as a reward to themselves.
Schools can promote a healthier learning environment by integrating health into their curriculum and using nonfood rewards.
Through various legislation,Tennessee has been improving the food available in its schools. The percent of Tennessee schools that did not sell high-calorie fruit juices or soft drinks increased from 26.7% in 2006 to 74% in 2008, now ranking 2nd in the nation in this category. 64.7% of Tennessee secondary schools only sold foods that met the state’s minimum nutritional guidelines, ranking 6th in the nation.
There are ways to improve the kind of food served in schools even more, like limiting access to vending machines and making efforts to incorporate more nutritious food in the cafeteria—like salad bars, fresh cut fruit, and flavored milk with lower sugar content.
Towns and cities can also create organized task forces to push for improving food in schools.
For example, the city of Baltimore recently hired a food policy coordinator to establish more farmers markets, community-supported agriculture programs, and community gardens, as well as push for new zoning laws to remove barriers to food production and sales.
In addition, the local organization Community Food Advocates created the project Growing Healthy Kids to improve the health of the Nashville community’s school-aged children by improving access to nutritious foods at schools. This project also provides food justice education, technical assistance and mini-grants to school gardens. Read CFA’s paper on the role of schools in promoting a health diet. [pdf]
A challenge to improving food in schools, however, is the complex system of federal free and reduced meals in schools. In Metro Nashville schools, 71% of students are eligible for this program and schools are reimbursed up to $2.74 per plate for these meals. However, In December 2010, a federal bill was passed to improve the nutritional value and safety of food served in schools. The bill also provides a 6-cent increase in the meal reimbursement rate for schools, the first increase in 30 years. However, MNPS School Food Services estimates they will need an additional 18-cents per plate to meet the higher nutritional content required in the law.
View Veronica Gunn’s explanation of how federal policies determine school nutrition programs and Kathryn Henderson’s explanation of how parents can get involved in improving the meals in their children’s schools.
Extended interviews: The Role of Schools
View Dr. Veronica Gunn’s explanation of the lack of nutritious food in schools and what kind of programs can be implemented to tackle this problem.
Extended interviews: The Role of Schools
Additional resources on food in the school environment: