Healthy Schools for All? Celebrating Gains, Understanding Barriers

September 25, 2013

Rochelle Davis on progress and barriers to school health.

By Rochelle Davis, President + CEO of Healthy Schools Campaign

Last month, Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released its 10th annual  F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America's Future 2013 report.

For the first time since its inception, the report contains good news. Eighteen states are reporting declines in the rate of obesity among low-income preschools. A number of cities are also reporting declines among children,  and for the first time in three decades, rates of adult obesity have stabilized.

While these gains are worth celebrating, rates of obesity remain high. Progress is still uneven, with higher rates and less progress among low-income minority populations. But despite uneven gains, this success shows that we do in fact know how to make change. As it says in the introduction to F as in Fat, reversing trends in obesity means changing public policies, community environments and industry practices in ways that support and promote healthy eating and physical activity.

Simply put, it’s about making the healthy choice the easy choice.

For schools, this means providing healthier food in the cafeteria and classroom; making opportunities for physical activity before, during and after school; and giving students the knowledge and skills to develop healthy habits for a lifetime. In fact, many schools are already doing just that, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2000, about 83 percent of elementary schools were required to offer physical education classes. In 2012, that number had increased to nearly 94 percent. In addition, far more schools now have nutrition standards for snack foods, with the percentage rising dramatically from 4.1 percent in 2002 to 43.4 percent in 2012. For schools not yet on board with this trend, beginning with the 2013 school year, federal regulations will require schools to adopt USDA standards for snacks.

In Chicago, HSC has been working with parents, principals, teachers and administrators to improve the school food and fitness environment. Over the last three years, more than 200 schools (40 percent of elementary schools) have made changes that meet the health-promoting standards of the USDA’s HealthierUS School Challenge. In addition, these changes are fast becoming the new standard, with district policies encouraging or requiring schools to make health-promoting changes.

These policy changes are key to ensuring that all students, regardless of income, benefit from positive change. If we want more schools to make healthy changes both in policy and in practice, we need to integrate health more fully into broader education policy. I’ve never met a teacher, principal or school administrator who did not understand that healthy students are better learners. However, he or she may have lacked the knowledge and skills to integrate health into the school day. Adding to this challenge, current accountability structures often don’t reward schools for keeping students healthy and ready to learn.

HSC has developed strategies to overcome barriers with our report, Health in Mind: Promoting Education Through Wellness. The report provides a blueprint for the Department of Education and others to incorporate health more fully into schools. Read the full report. 

Let’s work together to make the healthy choice the easy choice.