School Wellness Policies
Local Models and State Recommendations
In June 2004, the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act was signed into law making it mandatory for all local education agencies participating in the Federal School Meal Programs to create a Local Wellness Policy by July 2006. In passing this legislation, Congress recognized the vital role that schools can play in ensuring the health and wellness of their students.
The wellness policies are mandated to include: goals for nutrition education, physical activity, nutrition standards for foods sold in schools that are not federally reimbursable meals, plans for measuring implementation of the local wellness policies, and a requirement for community involvement in the development of the policies. The Safe Routes to School National Partnership emphasizes that the need for schools to develop wellness policies provides a great opportunity to insert Safe Routes to School (SRTS) programs and goals into school district plans.
The National Association of State Boards of Education has found that at least 45 states are actively providing assistance to local school districts on the formulation of wellness policies and that many have approved legislation or state board policies that provide direction on standards for both physical activity and nutrition.
There are also some predictable barriers to successful implementation, such as financial costs, lack of understanding or commitment on the part of key stakeholders, logistical challenges such as a lack of usable space at the school, or volunteer or staff time, and "lack of [policy] clarity, so school personnel and others do not know what to expect,” according to Action for Healthy Kids.
The local school wellness policies are an important new tool to address childhood obesity and promote healthy eating and physical activity through changes in school environments. The legislation requires that a broad group of local stakeholders be involved in designing the policy to ensure that the diverse needs of the community are met. The wellness policy requires a coordinated, group effort that should include parents and students, and school personnel who care especially about students and their needs. Since Safe Routes to School is also based on the formation of such a team, a School Wellness Council can be a good “home” for a SRTS program.
Creating a local wellness policy offers an opportunity to take a look at the district’s existing policies and make beneficial changes or additions. Your local education agency’s wellness policy should include detailed physical activity goals, and should include elements of Safe Routes to School, such as developing education or encouragement programs and events that will increase the number of kids walking and biking to school, and improving route safety and accessibility.
The National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity encourages schools, school districts, and others to use, distribute, and adapt its Model School Wellness Policies to local needs, and it includes a mention of Safe Routes to School. Many states are using this excerpted language in their policy:
The school district will assess and, if necessary and to the extent possible, make needed improvements to make it safer and easier for students to walk and bike to school. When appropriate, the district will work together with local public works, public safety, and/or police departments in those efforts. The school district will explore the availability of federal "safe routes to school" funds, administered by the state department of transportation, to finance such improvements. The school district will encourage students to use public transportation when available and appropriate for travel to school, and will work with the local transit agency to provide transit passes for students.
At a minimum, a local school wellness policy will encourage community partnerships for Safe Routes to School, like this excerpt from New York’s Clinton Central School District policy:
Clinton Central School District will work with school board members, parents, and local public works and police personnel to implement a “SAFE ROUTES TO SCHOOL” program in support of walking/biking to school.
There is not just one good way to develop and implement a wellness policy. Remember that a policy should be designed to match a district’s specific needs, resources, and goals. Below is the Safe Routes to School section excerpted from the Marin County, CA, Office of Education policy:
While Marin County has a number of transportation concerns, there has been increasing funding in the County to improve routes for safe walking and biking.
- Districts should encourage parents and students to walk and bike to school where safe routes are available and assist parents in organizing adult supervised groups.
- Parent and student groups may also consider assessing walking and biking access to their school and apply for funding to improve this access.
- The National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity encourages schools, school districts, and others to use, distribute, and adapt its Model School Wellness Policies: http://www.schoolwellnesspolicies.org/WellnessPolicies.html
- A Wellness Policy Tool is available from Action for Healthy Kids at: http://www.actionforhealthykids.org/for-schools/wellness-policy-tool/.
- How to Create and Implement a Local Wellness Policy. This page on the USDA Team Nutrition website walks you through each of the steps for developing a wellness policy: www.fns.usda.gov/tn/Healthy/wellnesspolicy_steps.html
- The School Health Index (SHI). This CDC-developed tool is free and has been used to develop comprehensive, coordinated and effective school health policies: http://apps.nccd.cdc.gov/shi/
- Fit, Healthy, and Ready to Learn. The National Association of State Boards of Education created this publication as a guide to writing policies on healthy eating, physical activity and other student health issues: Fit, Healthy, and Ready to Learn: Chapter D - Policies to Encourage Physical Activity