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Help to Create a Wellness Program for Your Local Schools

by Jennie McCary, MS, RD, LD on Mar 01, 2007

This step-by-step guide can be your blueprint for implementing a new government mandate to improve the diets and exercise habits of students in your district!

In the fight against childhood obesity, the school environment has received a good deal of attention because of its potential to influence a large number of school-aged children and their families. This school year, a new federal mandate went into effect that requires school districts throughout the United States to implement local wellness policies to improve the eating and physical activity habits of students. This mandate presents a unique way in which fitness professionals at every level can work closely with local school administrators, parents, students, staff and other allied health professionals to create and implement wellness policies in schools.
This article reviews the basic requirements for local school wellness policies, highlights the need for state and local action and profiles several existing, innovative school programs that promote healthy foods and physical activity. You’ll also learn how you can play a role in supporting school wellness initiatives in your community.
Why Focus on School Wellness?
A recent report published by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, entitled Preventing Childhood Obesity, came to the conclusion that it is “critically important” that the school environment support healthy eating and physical activity behaviors among students as one strategy for confronting the childhood obesity epidemic (Koplan, Liverman & Kraak 2005). Yet the lack of programs that support regular physical activity and proper nutrition in the current school landscape continues to be disturbing to many childhood experts.
For example, recess and physical education (PE) programs are constantly at risk of being cut from school curricula in order to fit in more classroom instructional time to prepare for standardized testing. One report found that only 8% of elementary schools, 6.4% of middle schools and 5.8% of high schools provide daily PE during the school year for students in all grades (Kolbe, Kann & Brener 2001). In a recent survey of American youth, just over one-third of high-school students reported attending daily PE classes by the time they reached their senior year (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] 2006).
And the problem isn’t exclusive to teenagers; younger kids are also seeing less and less play time at school. According to a recent report called Calories In, Calories Out: Food and Exercise in Public Elementary Schools, 2005 just 8 out of every 10 elementary schools have daily recess, with 25 minutes being the average amount of play time offered (Parsad & Lewis 2006). Despite its importance, recess is often on the chopping block as schools struggle to fit more academic requirements into the day.
There is also ongoing concern about the junk foods sold in schools. In an attempt to compensate for dwindling budgets and overcrowded classrooms, many schools have abandoned balanced, home-cooked meals and instead offer only “grab and go” calorie-dense and nutrient-poor packaged items—what many see as a sorry reflection of the nation’s eating habits as a whole. Nationally, 83% of elementary, 97% of middle and 99% of high schools sell foods and beverages out of vending machines, school stores or à la carte settings (Government Accountability Office 2005). Not surprisingly, soft drinks, chips and candy are the items most commonly sold in our schools (Wechsler et al. 2001).
Fortunately, the times are changing—or at least improving. In fact, the recent federal mandate for local school wellness policies requires schools to set goals for nutrition and physical activity. This presents an extraordinary opportunity for both parents and health and fitness professionals to contribute to creating and sustaining school environments that promote student health.
Requirements for Local School Wellness Policies
A new addition to the Child Nutrition and WIC [Women, Infants and Children] Reauthorization Act passed by Congress in 2004 requires that every school district that participates in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) school meal program must have established a local wellness policy by the start of the 2006–2007 school year. The goal of this addendum is to increase healthy food options and physical activity opportunities at each of the participating schools to help combat rising obesity levels in today’s youth.
Under the new act, each school district in the program is required, at a minimum, to take the following steps to design and implement activities that meet the local community’s needs:
• Set goals for nutrition education, physical activity and other school activities designed to promote student wellness.
• Create nutrition guidelines for all foods and beverages available during the school day outside of the federal meal program.
• Provide assurance that guidelines for reimbursable school meals are not less restrictive than current USDA regulations.
• Establish a way to measure wellness policy implementation, including designating one or more responsible persons at each school.
• Encourage the involvement of key stakeholders, including parents, students and the public (that means you!) (Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act 2004).
Reaction to the New Requirements
With the deadline to adopt wellness programs come and gone, how are the participating schools doing? To determine this, Action for Healthy Kids, a public–private partnership of more than 50 national organizations and government agencies, conducted a preliminary analysis to assess the progress of schools. Unfortunately, the study revealed that most school wellness policies did not make the grade.
“The level of detail in the policies varies dramatically, with only [half] meeting all of the minimum guidelines [set by the federal government],” explains Alicia Moag-Stahlberg, MS, RD, executive director of Action for Healthy Kids. “There is a clear need for improvement in the development, implementation and evaluation of policies to ensure [that] the highest standards of nutrition education and nutritious foods be made available to school children,” she adds.
Despite this report, many schools are making strides in supporting healthier practices. If anything, this evaluation is a reminder that schools need help putting policy into sustainable action. (See “Additional Resources” sidebar for websites of organizations cited in this article.)
Some national organizations, such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), realize this need and are committed to promoting healthy eating and physical activity in schools. One of RWJF’s programs, Healthy Eating Research, is currently examining how school wellness policies and environmental strategies work to promote healthy eating among children, especially among the low-income and those racial/ethnic populations at the highest risk for obesity, explains Mary Story, PhD, RD, director of Healthy Eating Research and professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota. “Findings are expected to advance RWJF’s efforts to reverse the trend in prevalence of childhood obesity by 2015,” says Story.
Helping create healthier settings for students is also a top priority for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a joint initiative of the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association. The Alliance has launched the Healthy Schools Program, which collaborates with schools to increase physical activity, teach healthy lifestyles and improve the nutritional quality of foods available in schools. The group’s online “Healthy School Builder” is a tool to help schools develop action plans based on established criteria for a “healthy school.” As part of its Healthy Schools Program, the Alliance garnered commitment from the food and beverage industries to voluntarily set snack and beverage guidelines that limit calories and portion sizes in schools. Additionally, schools can use the agreements with those industries to amend existing contracts to ensure that only nutritious products are available to students.
Grading Your State’s Schools
In response to the new federal mandate, many states offered their school districts guidance on creating wellness policies. Several states also seized the opportunity to provide additional requirements for these policies.
For instance, New Mexico joins a handful of other states that require that local school wellness policies address student and staff wellness through a coordinated school health approach. “We believe that in order for students to learn, it is important to focus on the whole child,” explains Kristine Meurer, PhD, director of the School and Family Support Bureau in the New Mexico Public Education Department. In other examples, Kentucky now requires some physical activity outside of PE during every school day. Indiana also requires physical activity every day, but PE is one way to cover the requirement; other opportunities (e.g., recess, intramurals at lunch and physical activity integrated into classroom lessons) must be provided on days when PE is not scheduled.
Here’s how the states fared, according to a recent report entitled F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies Are Failing in America 2006 (Trust for America’s Health 2006):
• Nine states (Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas) have mandated school-meal nutrition standards that are stricter than current USDA requirements.
• Fourteen states (Arizona, California, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia) have established nutrition standards for foods sold in vending machines, at snack bars or during fundraisers.
• All states except South Dakota have set PE requirements for students; however, Illinois is the only state that currently requires that its students receive daily PE.
Creating a State Plan
For those states that have yet to create a school wellness policy guide, the group Action for Healthy Kids has identified an eight-step process that schools can use as a blueprint. One of the initial critical steps is forming a team to assess the school’s needs. The group’s user-friendly, online “Wellness Policy Tool” can be used at any stage in the policy process to provide practical guidance.
Steps to Policy Implementation
Since most school districts have already created a wellness policy, the current focus is on supporting implementation and measuring progress. Several national organizations, state agencies and districts have created school wellness implementation guides to assist schools. For example, California Project LEAN recently introduced Policy in Action: A Guide to Implementing Your Local School Wellness Policy, which provides tools—including a PowerPoint presentation and other train-the-trainer materials—to assist schools in developing a plan of action. The guide outlines the following seven steps that schools can take to successfully implement their policies and programs:
1. Identify and prioritize key elements of the wellness policy.
2. Develop an implementation strategy.
3. Establish a policy implementation plan.
4. Engage students in policy implementation.
5. Communicate the policy to build awareness and maintain support.
6. Use marketing to encourage healthy choices.
7. Monitor and evaluate the policy.
Victoria Berends, marketing manager for California Project LEAN, stresses the importance of step 4, engaging students in the policy process. “We can never assume we understand what students value,” says Berends. She suggests involving students throughout the process; for example, by surveying them to assess the types of food or physical activity they would like offered, by inviting them to do taste tests of healthy menu items and by including the students when giving presentations to administrators and when developing promotional campaigns. “Student feedback helps ensure that what you are offering students will be accepted,” adds Berends.
Another key strategy in the process is to encourage effective communication among all of the stakeholders. “Communicating before, during and after the policy is adopted helps ensure buy-in and a mutual understanding of the importance of the policy,” says Berends. “It can help alleviate negative reactions that may arise.”
By way of example, the Albuquerque Public School District, the largest district in New Mexico, has developed a communication plan that includes sending out brochures that explain the district wellness policy, holding staff trainings, creating school wellness newsletter articles for parents and staff, and linking wellness messages to local media stories.
Putting Policy Into Action
Creating a policy on paper is one thing, but putting it into practice is another—and according to the experts, the step requires hard work. “School wellness policies can be a positive tool for change, but for this to happen there must be a strong commitment by the school and/or school district to enforce the policy and conduct ongoing monitoring and compliance,” says Story.
With all the time and financial constraints that schools face today, it can be a challenge to execute wellness activities. However, schools across the country are demonstrating that wellness can be integrated into the school day in the following ways.
Establishing Nutrition Standards
Schools have adopted a variety of approaches to address nutrition standards for à la carte and vended foods and beverages. One approach is to increase healthy options, such as fruits and vegetables. Another is to limit foods that contain or exceed specific amounts of calories, fat and sugar (this approach can vary by grade level).
While some states have set comprehensive nutrition standards, most school districts are left to develop their own standards, which has led to wide disparity. Expertise from nutrition professionals is essential in helping schools implement science-based nutrition standards for food sales. The goals here are to replace high-calorie sweetened beverages with water and milk, to downsize packaged snacks to single servings and to promote healthier, balanced options.
Food plays an integral role in school activities. School fundraisers and classroom celebrations typically center around food, a tradition that is being questioned and restricted in some local school wellness policies. Some districts have done away entirely with all candy sales and even banned cupcakes during classroom parties. For example, the Trumbull Public School District in Connecticut encourages games and projects instead of food celebrations and allows just one “treat,” balanced with healthy foods, in classroom parties.
Teachers commonly use food as a reward to reinforce student behavior, particularly in elementary schools. The Washoe County School District in Nevada is one of many that have changed this practice. The new wellness policy states that incentives and rewards must conform to the district’s restrictions for fat, sugar and sodium content in any food sold to students, and candy is no longer allowed in any form.
Some experts may question such food restrictions in schools, arguing that “junk food” is available for kids to eat outside of school. But the reality is that schools educate students by what they offer. Most important, proper nutrition is linked to better academic performance—a motive that has schools supporting the shift to healthier foods and beverages.
Providing Nutrition Education
While offering healthy foods at school is an essential component in any policy implementation, teaching students why and how to make positive food choices outside of campus is central to behavior change.
Programs like Cooking With Kids, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, have been successful in getting kids excited about nutrition. What started as a volunteer program with local chefs teaching cooking classes in one school has evolved into a funded program that now serves 4,000 students. Cooking With Kids offers hands-on cooking and tasting classes taught by a trained educator who helps students prepare fresh, healthy dishes from select regions of the world. The program also engages families by inviting them to volunteer in the classroom and by sending home simple recipes. “Cooking With Kids has contributed to increased [involvement by parents] and thus to the success of their children in school,” says Lynn Walters, coordinator of the program.
The Cooking With Kids program’s reach has recently expanded into the cafeteria, where the school district’s food service department now uses locally grown greens in fresh salads. “Cooking With Kids–inspired lunches are served several times a month in all Santa Fe public elementary schools,” says Walters. In fact, the success of this program has led to the implementation of a program called Kids Cook! in Albuquerque’s public schools.
Encouraging Daily Physical Activity
The CDC recommends that kids get at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day. Just how much can schools contribute to helping kids achieve this amount? Local school wellness policies can help increase the amount of time that students exercise before, during and after school. Options include ensuring that recess time is not cut out of the curriculum, offering intramural sports during lunch and providing movement-oriented afterschool programs.
Some schools are integrating movement into classroom lessons in creative ways, by including Energizers and Brain Breaks. Both programs offer short, 10-minute activities. Classroom teachers can use these to integrate physical activity into lessons like math and language arts, and PE teachers can use them to incorporate academic concepts into exercise programs. In fact, brain research supports the importance of movement in the learning process, according to Jean Blaydes Madigan, an internationally known education consultant, speaker and author on the subject. Energizers are the brainchild of experts from East Carolina University’s Activity Promotion Laboratory (, whereas Brain Breaks were developed by the Michigan Department of Education (; contact these sites for free downloads and instructions.
Another idea that school communities are promoting is students walking and biking to school. This may seem simple, but it requires working with the community to establish safe routes for kids. The Somerville School District in Massachusetts and the Scranton School District in Pennsylvania are two districts that are implementing Safe Routes to School programs as part of their wellness policies. One strategy being used is a “walking school bus.” In this scenario, groups of students walk designated routes to school (with adult supervision) and pick up other kids along the way, just as a bus would. Projects like this can be implemented with support from your state’s Safe Routes to School coordinator, available at
Another way to encourage walking among students is to make it fun and educational. At Burnt Chimney Elementary School in Virginia, students have walked 7,840 miles across all 48 continental U.S. states as part of their healthy lifestyles program. In the Walk Across America program, 5th grade students clip on pedometers at school and chart their progress each day. To up the fun quotient, administrators make daily school announcements asking “Where in the USA are our 5th graders today?”
“Kids have become aware of the importance of being active and conscious of their daily steps and mileage,” says Jason Guilliams, physical educator and coordinator of Burnt Chimney’s program. Walking is also integrated into classroom subjects, such as math and geography lessons. According to Guilliams, the program built so much excitement throughout the district that it ultimately led to a staff–student walking challenge.
Re-Establishing PE Programs
While the days of dodge ball are thankfully in the past, what is the future for PE programs in today’s schools? The program at Virginia’s Burnt Chimney Elementary School reflects a paradigm shift from traditional sports-centered PE programs to what is being termed the “new PE,” which focuses on health and lifestyle management.
A pioneer in this directional shift, Phillip Lawler, PE4Life academy director and a former PE teacher with Naperville public schools in Illinois, feels strongly that every student, K–12, should participate in daily PE. “To teach students to take responsibility for their own health, we have to put the education back in physical education,” Lawler says. This involves teaching students about their muscles, which movements are best for strength and flexibility, and how to check their heart rate.
PE4Life partnered with the Naperville School District to use its model program to train schools across the country. “Every child in the country should be experiencing PE the way it’s delivered in Naperville,” adds Lawler.
Unfortunately, Illinois remains the only state that requires daily PE as part of the school curriculum. But the good news is that PE programs across our nation can be improved without increasing the number of minutes needed for exercise. If schools offer quality PE programs that focus on all students, not just athletes, kids can develop the skills necessary to be lifelong movers.
Fostering Staff Wellness
One way to gain support for healthier changes at your local school is to start with the school staff. Once staff become more aware and personally experience the benefits of taking care of themselves, they are more likely to promote wellness to their students.
Districts vary in their approach to staff wellness; some simply encourage workers to serve as healthy role models, while others go further by implementing staff wellness activities, such as fitness challenges.
“Providing a wellness program to schools is similar to doing the same type of work at the corporate level—it’s just a different environment,” says Cathy Leman, RD, LD, owner and founder of NutriFit Inc., a nutrition consulting business in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Leman has assisted her local school district by offering its staff a weight loss program conveniently held on-site after school hours. To help out in your area, Leman suggests, simply contact your local district to share what you have to offer.
What You Can Do to Help
Local school wellness policies present extraordinary opportunities to promote healthy eating and physical activity through changes in school practices and programs. But schools already have full agendas, so implementing wellness policies presents some significant challenges. With so much pressure and competing mandates, will these policies truly influence student choices or will they fail to make a dent in the current obesity epidemic?
It is up to each of us as fitness professionals, parents and citizens to ensure successful policy implementation and sustainable action in our own community.
“Health and fitness professionals play a pivotal role in [school] wellness policy implementation,” says Moag-Stahlberg. “It is important for such professionals to be visible in the community and to use their [expertise] to impact the well-being of children.”
Moag-Stahlberg suggests getting involved in the discussion by attending local school board meetings to find out district needs and determine where your expertise fits. Another option is to contact one local school and offer to speak to students and/or staff about wellness and possible improvements to current practices.
Keeping wellness at the forefront of schools is a role you can take, and volunteering is a great way to begin. This is how Nicki Anderson, president of Reality Fitness Inc., began working with PE teachers in her home state of Illinois. First, Anderson helped one local junior high school set up a fitness center and apply for grant funding to provide students more opportunities to learn about healthy lifestyles. She then built on her relationships through her district’s community partnerships program. The district soon recognized Anderson’s skills in serving as a spokesperson.
“When our schools are looking for a fitness expert, they call me,” she says. She continues to volunteer her time by talking with students about exercise and by contributing to school newsletters. Even though Anderson admits she doesn’t have fond memories of PE as a child, she says, “I wanted to show kids that physical activity can be fun, no matter your athletic prowess.”
Even the most comprehensive wellness policy cannot be effectively implemented without support from the school community. If you want to become a champion for change in your local school, Walters offers this advice: “A friendly attitude and willingness to learn are important qualities in cultivating relationships with schools. It is wise to have a clear and realistic view of expectations and [of the] level of support and commitment from all involved.”
Jennie McCary, MS, RD, LD, is the wellness coordinator for the Albuquerque Public School District. She also chairs the Action for Healthy Kids team in New Mexico.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2006. Youth risk behavior surveillance—United States, 2005. Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report, 55 (SS-5), 1–108.
Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act. 2004. PL 108–265, section 204.
Government Accountability Office (GAO). 2005. School Meal Programs: Competitive Foods Are Widely Available and Generate Substantial Revenues for Schools. Washington, DC: GAO.
Kolbe, L.J., Kann, L., & Brener, N.D. 2001. Overview and summary findings: School Health Policies and Programs Study 2000. Journal of School Health, 71 (7), 253–59.
Koplan, J.P., Liverman, C.T., & Kraak, V.I. (Eds.) 2005. Preventing Childhood Obesity: Health in the Balance. Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.; retrieved Nov. 18, 2006.
Parsad, B., & Lewis, L. 2006. Calories In, Calories Out: Food and Exercise in Public Elementary Schools, 2005 (NCES 2006–057). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.
Trust for America’s Health. 2006. F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies Are Failing in America.; retrieved Nov. 18, 2006.
Wechsler, H., et al. 2001. Food service and foods and beverages available at school: Results from the School Health Policies and Programs Study 2000. Journal of School Health 2001, 71 (7), 313–24.

How Healthy Is Your School?

A healthy school environment supports healthy choices for students. Quickly assess your local school practices by giving 1 point for each “yes” answer to the questions that appear below:
1. Are nutritious foods and beverages available and promoted?
2. Do nutrition standards or policies exist that limit access to junk food?
3. Do these policies address classroom parties and fundraisers?
4. Do students receive positive messages about healthy eating and physical activity?
5. Is nutrition education included in the educational program?
6. Are there daily opportunities for all students to be physically active?
7. Are meals offered that include a variety of foods and meet the USDA nutrition standards?
8. Does the PE program focus on developing health-related fitness skills for all students?
9. Are school staff prohibited from using food as a reward?
10. Are staff prohibited from withholding recess and PE to punish bad behavior?
Now add up your score. A score of 9–10 denotes your school is excellent; 6–8 is great, but your school can probably benefit from more support from experts like you; 4–5 is only fair and shows that some practices should be improved; anything less than 5 indicates that major improvements are warranted.

How to Become Involved

It is never too late to get involved in supporting school wellness programs, and the new law presents a unique opportunity for you to do so! Here are some steps you can take today to become part of this important effort:
• Check the website for your district or school to find out about its wellness policy.
• Inquire about a district- or school-level health advisory council and learn when it meets.
• Visit your local school and talk to the principal or to parent groups, such as the PTA.
• Contact the school’s physical educator, nurse and other staff to form a school wellness team.
• Contact your state’s Action for Healthy Kids team (see “Additional Resources” on page 63) to explore how to get involved.

This school year, a new federal mandate went into effect that requires school districts throughout the United States to implement local wellness policies to improve the eating and physical activity habits of students.

Only 8% of elementary schools, 6.4% of middle schools and 5.8% of high schools provide daily PE during the school year for students in all grades.

Additional Resources

Action for Healthy Kids,
Alliance for a Healthier Generation,
California Project Lean,
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), information on the School Health Index, Making It Happen: School Nutrition Success Stories, the “Walk to School” program and staff wellness)
Safe Routes to Schools,
School Nutrition Association “Wellness Policy Report,”
U.S. Department of Agriculture Team Nutrition,

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About the Author

Jennie McCary, MS, RD, LD

Jennie McCary, MS, RD, LD IDEA Author/Presenter

You can pose your own question to our contributing editor Jennie McCary, MS, RD, LD, a registered dietitian and worksite wellness consultant with Presbyterian Health Plan. Please send your questions, along with your name and city/state/country, to editor Sandy Webster at