NEWARK — Rising childhood obesity rates and regulation changes at the national level prompted the Worcester County Board of Education (BoE) to update its health and wellness policy this week.
The policy includes a continued emphasis on promoting healthy food being served in the cafeteria, additional time during the day for physical activity and programs for not only student as well as staff wellness.
The policy is being updated now due to the fact that state and federal health requirements in schools seem to have settled enough to allow for a long-term plan.
“We have had a policy in existence since 2006,” said Tamara Mills, Coordinator of Instruction. “We’ve made several re-visions but haven’t brought it to you because by the time we’d revised things they’d changed regulations again.”
The latest health and wellness policy is built to be comprehensive, spanning seven components across four categories. Healthy foods in schools will be a major focus. Things like caffeine, salt, added sugar and saturated fats will be reduced or removed as much as possible. There will also be an emphasis on decreasing the exposure of students to junk food advertising while on school grounds.
“Schools shall minimize the commercial exploitation of its students,” reads the new policy, “as well as create and maintain a learning environment that minimizes commercial distractions, in regards to food and beverage.”
While the board was supportive of the food priorities, board member Sara Thompson did admit to being concerned about whether the drive to remove so many things from cafeterias would discourage students.
“Pretty soon they’re going to have it so that nobody buys cafeteria food,” she said. “They’ve taken the salt away, they’ve taken everything away.”
It’s still possible to eat healthy without hating the food, Mills replied. For example, schools will still serve pizza but will use things like a wholegrain crust, tomato sauce without sugar and low-fat cheese. Thompson was dubious as to whether that kind of pizza is as popular as more traditional fare, but did vote along with the rest of the board to approve the policy.
There was a question about what schools do to control food brought from home. Schools “don’t want to mandate what comes from home,” said Mills, and there’s nothing in the policy to regulate packed lunches. However, if staff notices a student is consistently bringing nothing but junk food a call might be made to their guardians expressing concerns.
Health and wellness goes beyond just nutrition and extends into physical activity. The new policy includes calling for additional activity throughout the school week and getting students to exercise more frequently. The goal is to “value, model and promote positive and age-appropriate physical activity and education.”
Worth mentioning is that while students are obviously the focus of the revamped health and wellness policy, provisions are also made for faculty and staff. Throughout the year, the school system is expected to provide health-centric programs and fitness opportunities to faculty so that they can lead students by example.
“Worcester County Public Schools and the Central Office shall promote staff health and wellness,” reads the new policy, “by providing a variety of organized programs for staff, designed to enrich and improve their nutritional, physical, mental and emotional well-being.”
The school board voted unanimously to adopt the re-vised health and wellness policy.
Schools are the frontlines for combating rising childhood obesity rates, said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jerry Wilson, and this new policy should help Worcester become a healthier community.