New Policies Support Wellness in Chicago Public Schools

December 17, 2012 | Written By:

by Rochelle Davis, HSC President and CEO

This fall, we have seen remarkable milestones for school wellness in Chicago. At the Chicago Board of Education’s meeting in November, the Board passed a Healthy Snack and Beverage Policy. In October, the Board adopted a new school wellness policy. Combined, these two policies represent a significant advance in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) school food and fitness policy.

What do the policies mean for schools? Most fundamentally, they set common-sense standards to support children’s health and thereby set the stage for learning.

The wellness policy requires that schools provide quality P.E., offer more nutrition education, form a wellness team and designate someone to coordinate wellness efforts. In addition, the policy codifies and formalizes at the board level a number of important policies and practices that are already making a difference for kids’ health. For example, the wellness policy formally reinforces the district’s commitment to daily recess at all elementary schools and local procurement as part of the school food program. The policy also provides for strong enforcement in a number of important ways. For example, it includes an indicator on each school’s progress report that tells parents and the public how effectively a school is implementing the wellness policy.

The Healthy Snack and Beverage Policy establishes nutritional standards for food available to students outside the school lunch program, including a la carte items sold in the cafeteria, vending machines and school stores. The policy also requires local schools to plan for promoting healthy school fundraising and healthy classroom celebrations.

Simply put, these changes are very important: they mean healthier learning environments for the district’s 400,000+ students and also send a strong message about the value of wellness to learning.  

How did this come about? This advance builds on years of change at the school level and ongoing work to build support for wellness among parents, teachers, principals and school administrators.

At HSC, we have worked for years with incredible parent advocates, classroom teachers, principals and community members whose efforts to create healthy schools – one school at a time and through policy change at the district level – has truly built a foundation for these advances.

Through our Parents United for Healthy Schools coalition, for example, HSC has engaged hundreds of parents in Chicago’s low-income Latino and African-American communities in training and leadership opportunities focused on school wellness. Those parent advocates, in turn, reached thousands more parents through petitions in support of recess and breakfast in the classroom. Board of Education members supported these policies in the context of strong parent support for health and wellness in schools.

Through Go for the Gold, HSC has worked with CPS to support hundreds of schools in making changes related to healthy eating, physical activity and nutrition education as part of the HealthierUS School Challenge. (Currently, 71 schools have met the challenge, dozens have applications pending and hundreds more have begun the process.) Through this effort, principals have set health-promoting policies at the school level regarding vending, fundraising, healthy classroom celebrations and other issues that are now addressed by district-wide policy.  Just as Board of Education members were able to look to strong support from parents, they were also able to look to principals and teachers for examples of similar policies already succeeding at the school level across the city.

One note for those interested in the specifics of school health and wellness policies is that the Board looked at the issue of healthy classroom celebrations and the question of where decisions about celebrations should be made. At HSC, we believe it is important for schools to send consistent messages and support students’ wellness with healthy celebrations. (For example, celebrating a holiday with a dance party or special crafts instead of unhealthy treats.) We also understand that the issue of healthy celebrations tends to be the most controversial aspect of a school wellness policy, and that it is important to consider where this policy is made. In Chicago, the Board of Education took the approach of having this issue addressed at the school level, by each individual principal or school council. We were happy to see that the board included language HSC suggested to make the default choice a healthy one. With this approach, schools are encouraged to consider the needs of their own community and set a health-promoting school policy regarding celebrations and fundraisers. If the school does not act to set a policy on this, then a default rule will apply: classroom celebrations that include unhealthy food are limited to twice each year and schools may not sell food that does not meet the CPS nutritional guidelines. This is an example of our belief that school policy should make the healthy choice the easy choice.

When HSC began advocating for school wellness in CPS in 2006, the dialogue about healthy eating and physical activity in schools was at a totally different level, both locally and nationally. Here in Chicago, we worked with hundreds of parents to create a rally for healthy schools with the goal of encouraging the district to adopt its first wellness. In the years since then, we have worked with many more amazing parents, teachers, principals and community members who to support health-promoting changes at their neighborhood schools. Now, it is remarkable to see this type of change formalized at the board level so it can help shape healthier futures for the city’s students, now and for years to come.

In pausing to reflect on these advances, I’d like to commend the Board of Education members for their vision in recognizing that healthy students are better prepared to learn and that it is schools’ responsibility to provide environments that support health. I’d also like to commend the parents, teachers, principals and community  members who have worked tirelessly over the years to encourage change and model successful health-promoting policies at the school level, laying the groundwork for this powerful city-wide change.

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