Guest Column: Schools need to plan, not just ban, to have impact on childhood obesity

Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s renewed attempt to ban junk food in Illinois elementary and middle schools serves as a reminder of the important role schools can play in addressing the problem of overweight and obesity in children and adolescents. While limiting access to nutrient-poor snacks is a step in the right direction, there’s much more schools can do to promote good nutrition and help establish good health habits for life.

We are not saying schools are to blame for the obesity epidemic. Certainly, the availability of unhealthy foods at home and in the community, along with the lack of opportunities for physical activity, contribute greatly to the problem. Nevertheless, research shows the schools can have a significant impact on students’ food choices when healthy eating messages are reinforced with the availability of healthy foods.

Unfortunately, most schools are failing to live up to public expectations in this regard. While surveys show the vast majority of parents want their children to get healthier food at school, only 20 percent of schools provide reimbursable school meals that meet the USDA-mandated standard for fat and saturated fat. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control showed 90 percent of schools allow students to purchase snack foods or beverages from vending machines or at the school store, canteen or snack bar, with “less nutritious” foods and beverages making up the majority of those sales.

At the same time, most parents support daily physical education for all children, yet studies show that only 6 to 8 percent of schools nationally provide physical education every day. In Illinois, more than 40 percent of schools have obtained waivers exempting them from state-mandated physical education requirements.

The good news is that we now have an unprecedented opportunity to address this problem in a planned and coordinated manner. A new federal law requires all schools to establish comprehensive wellness policies by July 2006 that establish nutritional standards for all foods sold at school, including school meals, foods sold in vending machines and school stores, as well as foods offered through fund-raising and reward activities. The policies must also set goals for nutrition education and physical activity and measures the impact of the policy on student health. Most important, the law specifies that parents, among other key stakeholders, be involved from the beginning to plan policies that reflect the unique circumstances, challenges and opportunities facing their local communities.

In connection with its current campaign, The Student Body Challenge: Making Student Health and Fitness a School Policy, The Healthy Schools Campaign is publishing a step-by-step guide about how school administrators, parents, teachers, food service professionals, health care providers and other concerned citizens can work together to develop policies and plans having a real impact on student health. Visit to learn more and reserve a copy of the step-by-step guide and other helpful planning materials.

The Healthy Schools Campaign calls upon Blagojevich, the Illinois State Board of Education and others who care about our children’s health to take advantage of this great opportunity and promote the development of well-designed, comprehensive wellness policies in all our schools by the end of this school year.

Rochelle Davis is the founding executive director of the Healthy Schools Campaign, 205 W. Monroe St., 4th Floor, Chicago, IL 60606, phone (312) 419-1810.

From the Feb. 22-28, 2006, issue

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