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.
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
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.
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
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
• 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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
• 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.

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.

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
Safe Routes to Schools,
School Nutrition Association “Wellness Policy Report,”
U.S. Department of Agriculture Team Nutrition,