Wednesday, April 7, 2010

What’s the Wellness Policy for D.C. Schools?

By Constance Newman

According to The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004, all schools participating in federal school meals programs are required to enact a local wellness policy by the 2006-2007 school year.

The law stipulates that each school district set goals for nutrition standards, physical activity, nutrition education, and evaluation. A wide range of stakeholders should be involved in developing the goals including parents, students, school food service staff, the school board, school administrators, and the community at large. Whether such a locally determined policy can work well in practice is an open question, and in keeping with the nature of the policy, perhaps only the community can really gauge its success.

DC’s wellness policy can be found here. Below is a summary of its main nutrition and physical activity goals:

• Nutrition guidelines – 1) “the nutritional value of the food served will improve upon USDA standards through the provision of nutritious, fresh, tasty food that reflects community and cultural diversity”; 2) all milk should be lowfat or fat-free; and 3) a “move toward” whole grains.

• Physical activity: 20 minutes minimum for daily recess and physical education class requirements that differ by age group.

• Strict guidelines for foods sold in vending machines: no soda, no juices with less than 100% juice, sugar, fat, and sodium restrictions (and more).

The first nutrition goal is pretty vague, and it falls far short of the specifics that we would like to see for reimbursable meals. There is a progress report from 2009 available here which provides some specifics about how this particular goal is being met. Among other things, a fresh fruit or vegetable is being served once per day (or 4 out of 5 days in elementary schools), and some schools “have become self-prep, enabling them to offer fresh items rather than pre-plated options” (p.14).

We know from Ed Bruske’s findings about “self-prep kitchens”, however, that they are not nearly as good as the term makes it sound.

Other policy goals in the wellness policy are related to expanding and ensuring access. But in terms of its focus on the nutritional quality of meals, much more can, and should be, done.

Our group has been warmly welcomed to participate on DC’s local wellness policy committee. This is a great opportunity, and hopefully, a way to really make a difference on local policy.

Constance Newman is a D.C. parent and research economist.

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