Schools working on wellness plans for student health

Published 5:00 am Monday, May 1, 2006

Educators all over the country are tackling the epidemic ofchildhood obesity this spring by looking at the foods kids haveaccess to on their school campuses.

Everything from soft drink and snack vending machines to schoollunches is being scrutinized in an effort to comply with a 2004federal law mandating wellness plans on each campus. State lawscould follow.

“Under this law, schools are required to establish a wellnesspolicy to be in place by the first day of the 2006-2007 schoolyear,” said Doris Schneider, division director of training for theMississippi Department of Education (MDE).

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Wellness policies will attempt to address the entire picture ofchild obesity.

“We feel kids should have good nutritional education, goodphysical education information so they’ll know what to do as wellas having access to healthy foods on campus,” Schneider said.

Federal laws provide minimal standards that school systems mustadhere to when establishing wellness policies. Each school is alsogiven leeway to make stricter guidelines.

“At this point, schools can set their own standards,” Schneidersaid.

Schools, according to federal law, will not be required tocompletely eliminate junk food.

But that could change when Mississippi lawmakers meet thisspring, Schneider said. School systems are required to formcommittees, gather data and submit wellness policies to their localschool boards.

“I submitted our plan at last week’s board meeting,” said LeaBarrett, superintendent of Brookhaven schools. “We know that ourcafeteria meets child nutrition guidelines. This policy takes alook at reward guidelines.”

Among other things, school officials are examining whether candyshould be given as a reward for good behavior.

“So instead of giving the child a candy bar for a reward, wemight give them a lunch with the principal or something,” Barrettsaid.

The policy could require schools to ensure that children, at thevery least, have access to healthful choices. An eventual phase-outof soft drinks could also be possible, Barrett said.

“For instance, I love plain, classic Coca-Cola. We might proposea three-year phase out. We would not do it all at once,” shesaid.

Under Barrett’s hypothetical, kindergartners through sixthgraders would be the first group to have no access to soft drinkson campus. The policy could extend to eighth graders the next yearand through twelth-graders the following year.

Under the new policy, school health committees includingparents, teachers, students, and community leaders will be formedat each school to determine how to best implement the wellnesspolicy.

“You know it’s always good to have different points of view,”said R.J. Jenkins, a junior at Brookhaven High School and a memberof the Brookhaven School Wellness Program committee.

Jenkins plays three different sports at Brookhaven High andrecognizes the importance of good nutrition.

“It’s definitely important. I think it should be important toeverybody. You could live longer,” Jenkins said.

Beau Simonson, Child Nutrition administrator for Lincoln Countyschools, believes the federal mandates will be beneficial toincrease parental awareness and health consciousness.

“I’m not sure that school lunch contributes to obesity,” saidSimonson. “We are already under strict guidelines from the USDAabout what we can serve. It’s all ready set up to be healthy.”

Simonson views parental involvement as the vital element incurbing childhood obesity.

“When I was a child, we stayed outside a lot more. We rode ourbikes. Today, there are a lot more Play Stations and computers,”Simonson said.

As students mature, greater responsibility is placed on theirshoulders to make good decisions.

“It is both the school and the parents’ responsibility,” Jenkinssaid. “And it is the student’s. Students have to make responsibledecisions.”

For Jenkins and other high school students, it is certainly morerealistic to encourage healthful nutrition decisions, which thewellness plan will aim to encourage. Committee participants, likeJenkins, will look at what teachers could use to reward youngerchildren for good behavior instead of candy.

“A teacher could put a student at the beginning of a line orgive him a sticker. There’s different options,” Jenkins said.

Simonson is currently developing a wellness plan which he willsubmit to the Lincoln County School Board in May.