More bad news for underserved kids at rural grade schools: According to the study, “Early Effects of the Federally Mandated Local Wellness Policy on School Nutrition Environments Appear Modest in Colorado’s Rural, Low-Income Elementary Schools,” healthy eating initiatives are thus far ineffective.
Here are the essentials of the results:
Local wellness policies, mandated in 2006 to help school districts address childhood obesity, have had only a minimal impact on improving the nutritional quality of foods and beverages offered to students in Colorado’s public schools, according to a recent study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Schools’ limited ability to purchase fresh local foods, policies written with vague and unenforceable language, and budget challenges are hindering progress.
Researchers surveyed administrators at 45 low-income rural Colorado elementary schools before and after wellness policies were implemented to assess schools’ efforts to improve student nutrition. From 2005 to 2007, there were no changes in most of the practices that were monitored, including:
• the number of schools with vending machines that sold soda or high-fat, high-calorie foods;
• the number of schools with vending machines located outside of the cafeteria;
• the average number of daily fresh vegetable options at lunch; and
• the number of schools that offered a salad bar some days or every day.
Three improvements were observed over the two-year period: more schools required healthy foods to be served during classroom parties; schools increased the average number of daily fresh fruit offerings at lunch; and more schools served skinless poultry at lunch.
Yet, interviews with district foodservice managers revealed that none believed the local wellness policies influenced the changes made to the lunch meals. Rather, they attributed the improvements to recommendations that came from the Colorado Department of Education. The managers also reported that low foodservice budgets, along with health, safety, and logistical requirements that prevent schools from buying fresh produce from local farmers, make it difficult for schools to provide a broad selection of healthy foods.
Analyses of the written wellness policies showed that they often included vague, weak language and rarely restricted unhealthy ingredients or set limits for caloric content of foods or beverages. The authors stress the need for partners and funding agencies to help schools implement evidence-based changes that will expand healthy offerings in and outside of the cafeteria.
As part of the What’s Working project, the research was conducted by the Rocky Mountain Prevention Research Center at the Colorado School of Public Health. The What's Working project is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.