In 2004, Congress included language in the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act that required school districts participating in the National School Lunch Program or other child nutrition programs such as the School Breakfast Program to adopt and implement local wellness policies by the first day of the 2006–07 school year. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA)—a reauthorization of the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004—continued this mandate.
Recent reports that 95 percent of school districts nationwide have adopted a local wellness policy are encouraging. However, the percentage of districts that advance their policies from adoption to implementation, specifically with regard to policy monitoring, evaluation, and reporting, drastically decreases. To illustrate, during the 2013–14 school year, only 30 percent of school districts nationwide had a reporting requirement in their local wellness policy; 15 percent of districts had an evaluation plan; and less than 10 percent included any type of posting provision within their local wellness policy.
In 2010, then-President Barack Obama signed the HHKFA. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released the final HHFKA rule in July 2016. The law gives the USDA authority to set new standards for food sold in schools as determined by the Institute of Medicine. The law applies to all foods and beverages sold on campus during the school day—cafeteria à la carte selections, school stores, snack bars, vending machines, and any other venues—-with some exceptions. For example, regulations do not apply to foods brought from home, such as treats for birthday celebrations or for school bake sales.
In order to receive federal funding for certain food programs, school officials must document compliance with the law’s nutritional goals, including the serving of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. These national standards are the minimum USDA requirements for schools; states and schools that have stronger standards can still maintain their own policies. Importantly, the 2010 HHFKA reauthorization places greater emphasis on implementation, evaluation, and public reporting of progress toward meeting local wellness policy goals. Finally, the law provides $4 million in bonuses per year for states that demonstrate improvement based on established benchmarks.
In the United States, approximately 17 percent of (or 12.7 million) children and adolescents age 2–19 years are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The obesity rate of school-aged children has steadied over the past decade, with rates declining somewhat among 2- to 5-year-olds and stabilizing among 6- to 11-year-olds. However, obesity rates continue to increase among 12- to 19-year-olds. Since 1980, the rate of obese teens has quadrupled, from 5 percent to 20.5 percent. High school students’ obesity rates exceeded 15 percent in 11 of 37 states; no state has a rate below 10 percent, according to the CDC.
Obesity can have immediate negative health consequences for children and adolescents, including prediabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, sleep apnea, accidental injury, and bone and joint problems. Negative emotional and social consequences include poor self-esteem and stigmatization. Research continues to indicate that overweight and obese students tend to miss more school, which in turn can negatively impact academic performance. On the other hand, evidence strongly links healthy nutrition and physical activity behaviors with improved student attendance, academic performance, and classroom behavior. Since healthy nutrition is recognized as essential to combating childhood obesity, schools play a critical role in providing healthy nutrition services to students and educational programming that emphasizes both well-designed, sequential, preK–12 nutrition education and an environment that encourages healthful eating. Schools can also enhance health and learning by providing opportunities for all students to be physically active before, during, and after the school day. Teaching children healthy habits for a lifetime is an explicit legislative intent.
With regard to nutrition services, food consumed through school meals can contribute to as much as 50 percent of children’s daily caloric intake; schools serve 30.5 million student lunches and 14 million student breakfasts daily. Of lunches served, 72.6 percent were free/reduced price, according to the USDA. The reauthorization of the National School Lunch Program through HHFKA incorporated other key components to strengthen school meal programs and increase access to school meals for low-income children. These components include community eligibility provisions; improvements to direct free school meal certification to ensure that more low-income children are included without an application; access by low-income students to meals during the summer; an expanded Farm-to-School Program; school lunch program categorical eligibility of foster children with no separate paper application requirement; and necessary updates to nutrition requirements based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine. Plus, it gives authorization of the USDA to regulate all food and beverages sold in schools.
Developing Local Wellness Policies
The local wellness policy is a key component of HHFKA in addressing the ongoing epidemic of obesity in school-aged children and adolescents. These wellness policies, intended to promote the health of students and address the growing problem of childhood obesity, are intentionally placed to accommodate the unique needs and characteristics of each local educational agency. HHFKA required the USDA to develop regulations that provide a local wellness policy framework and guidelines. As noted, the USDA released the final HHFKA rule in July 2016, highlighting that districts participating in a federal food program shall establish a wellness policy, which must include sections addressing:
- Specific goals for activities that promote nutrition, physical activity, and other school-based programs that encourage student wellness.
- Standards and nutrition guidelines for all foods that are sold during the school day that meet minimum nutritional requirements and promote student health and reduce childhood obesity.
- A description regarding how parents, students, representatives of the school food authority, physical education teachers, school health professionals, the school board, school administrators, and the general public are provided an opportunity to participate in the development, implementation, and periodic review and update of the wellness policy.
- A designation of the school official(s) responsible for the implementation of the local school wellness policy in order to ensure each school’s compliance with the policy.
- A description of the plan for measuring the implementation of the local school wellness policy, and a plan to inform and update the public.
A team approach is essential, as successful wellness policy implementation requires support from school personnel as well as school administrators, school-related organizations (PTA/PTO, booster clubs, etc.), families, and community agencies such as local health departments, hospitals, cooperative extension, and food banks. Specific information on the USDA’s local wellness policies—including implementation guidelines, examples of model policy language, and links to related resources—can be found on the USDA website (www.fns.usda.gov/tn/local-school-wellness-policy).
Melissa Boguslawski, MPH, is a doctoral student and associate instructor at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN, studying health behavior in the School of Public Health.
David K. Lohrmann, PhD, MCHES, is a professor at Indiana University, a nationally recognized school health expert, and author of ASCD’s Creating a Healthy School Using the Healthy School Report Card.
Suzanne E. Eckes, PhD, JD, is a professor at Indiana University. She has published widely on school legal matters, including co-editing The Principal’s Legal Handbook.