School district wellness policies have resulted in few substantive changes in the nutritional quality of meals served in rural lunchrooms, researchers have found.

Local Wellness Policies – required of all school districts participating in the National School Lunch Program as a way to boost opportunities for physical activity and healthy eating – appear to have had very little impact on either, a recent study of Colorado schools shows.

The reason – the policies are often vaguely worded, use terms such as “are encouraged to” rather than “required” and, once written, tend to be stuffed in notebooks never to be seen again. School officials focus on those mandates for which they are held accountable – raising test scores – rather than on those for which results are neither measured nor rewarded.

And many view their choices as “either/or” instead of “both/and,” failing to see how concentrating on improving a school’s physical and nutritional environment will positively impact academic performance, researchers say.

“I was surprised,” said Elaine Belansky, an assistant professor at the Colorado School of Public Health and associate director of the Rocky Mountain Prevention Research Center, who was the principal investigator for the study.

And not just surprised at the lack of results.

“I was surprised by how much pressure schools and superintendents are facing,” she said. “How the expectations keep piling on them with very few getting removed from their plate, and I’m surprised that the federal government makes unfunded mandates and puts schools in a position where they may not look good because they don’t have the resources attached to the mandate.”

Low-income rural schools were surveyed

The researchers surveyed principals and food service managers in 45 low-income rural Colorado elementary schools before and after the Local Wellness Policies were implemented in 2006. They found that very little had changed between 2005 and 2007.

While P.E. class time went up an extra 14 minutes per week, in accordance with wellness-policy language, recess time actually decreased by 19 minutes, for a net loss of 5 minutes of physical activity.

As one rural superintendent told researchers, “What we continue to hear is ‘No Child Left Behind.’ I haven’t heard ‘Don’t leave fat kids behind.’ It’s about keeping kids academically fit. That’s foremost on our minds.”

And some recommended nutritional changes – banning sales of sodas or junk food from vending machines, increasing the number of daily fresh vegetable options in the lunchroom, offering a salad bar – simply didn’t happen, despite wellness policy goals.

The study found that some things did improve. More schools prohibited offering sugary or fatty treats during classroom parties and they increased the average number of daily fresh fruit offerings at lunch. More schools began serving skinless poultry at lunch. But researchers concluded that these positive changes had nothing to do with the Local Wellness Policies.

“The reason they made those improvements was because of site visits from the Colorado Department of Education,” Belansky said. “The food service managers talked quite positively about those site visits, and they felt they had gotten great ideas from the department’s nutrition staff.”

The most recent study findings were reported in the November issues of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Earlier findings were reported last year in the Journal of Public Health Policy.

Officials go for “low-hanging fruit,” not meaningful change

Belansky lauded the schools for the improvements they did make, but bemoaned the fact that more substantive changes didn’t result.

“Having policies in place about the food that can be served in classroom parties is a good change, but it’s not the kind of change that gives you a big bang for the buck when addressing childhood obesity,” she said. “It doesn’t affect a child’s daily food consumption.”

Belansky concluded that rural schools need assistance from universities, from the state department of education and from other organizations to determine the best evidence-based practices and to focus on those changes that will yield the most results.

“We need to help schools who are so overwhelmed, who have so few resources, and really guide them in a process where they’re taking on not just the low-hanging fruit,” she said, “but doing things that will really address the childhood obesity epidemic.”

Weakly worded sample policy gets watered down

Unfortunately, she said, most rural school districts – when squeezed by federal demands that they devise a Local Wellness Policy – simply used a template supplied to them by the Colorado Association of School Boards. That template was already weakly worded.

“Then the districts took that template and made the wording even weaker,” she said. “So I wonder if we couldn’t work with CASB to start with a stronger template next time, knowing that schools will tone it down.”

Occasionally, however, the wellness policies became “living” documents rather than unheeded and unread policies. That happened only when a “champion” emerged to constantly remind school staff about the policy and ensure that it was followed.

CASB spokesman Brad Stauffer said the wellness policy template the organization supplied to school districts was intentionally weak, but that CASB expected local districts to have their own discussions about what policy language best meets their own needs and circumstances.

“When we use words like ‘encourage,’ it is intentional and appropriate,” he said. “School districts care about good nutrition for students and are working toward offering better choices. However, many of the nutritional strategies, such as serving more fresh fruits and vegetables, are costly and additional funding is not presently available.”

Geoff Gerk, superintendent of Fremont County school district RE3 – which serves 225 students in Cotopaxi – acknowledged using the CASB LWP template, tweaking it only slightly to reflect the fact that the district is on a four-day week. And in Cotopaxi, they don’t worry about kids loading up on sweets at a nearby convenience store. There aren’t any.

“I guess we’re paying more attention to (the policy) as time progresses,” said Gerk. “But it hasn’t changed a whole lot of what we were doing prior to having it.”

Gerk said nutrition in Cotopaxi schools is much better than it was five years ago, but that he nevertheless feels frustrated by trying to fulfill extra requirements without extra resources.

“I think every agency, every person involved in education has wonderful plans, wonderful ideas, and always the best interests of the students at heart. But when you get multiple agencies, legislators, more and more federal regulations all tied to the Title (federal grant) programs, it does seem like there’s a constant barrage of things we have to do. And when we get down to it, we have to ask ‘How does this affect the kids in the classroom?’”

Making clear the link between wellness, academic performance

Belansky said the questions Gerk raises are typical of those she heard voiced by rural educators across the state.

“One of the things I’m struck by is how many principals – and superintendents and board members too – don’t know about the very good studies that show the positive relationship between physical activity and academic achievement,” she said.

“I think there’s a real opportunity for reform leaders in Colorado to help them make that link. They say they took away recess because they were worried about how time away from classroom instruction would impact CSAP scores. But studies show that when you increase physical activity, it has no negative impact on tests such as CSAP.”

Belansky said that despite the disappointing findings, she doesn’t believe the creation of Local Wellness Policies was wasted effort.

“It started a conversation at high levels of school administration,” she said. “It gave voice to those champions in the school district who wanted to address nutrition and physical activity. It gave them a reason why school officials had to have a meeting with them about this. So it was a good first step.”

But she acknowledges that meaningful changes cost money. P.E. classes can’t be extended without money to pay for staff, and the quality of P.E. classes won’t improve without money to provide continuing education to the teachers. And schools can’t provide better meals with money to buy fresh fruit and vegetables.

Lessons for urban schools as well

This study focused on rural low-income districts, but Belansky believes many of its findings are applicable across the state. She said interviews with urban school principals also found widespread unfamiliarity with district wellness policy, and a lack of authority to control what happens in the lunchroom.

Quantity of P.E. is substantially lower in Denver than in rural districts, Belansky found, but the quality is much higher. “That’s because they have fabulous professional development in Denver, which they just don’t get in rural schools,” she said.

Belansky and her colleagues will continue to collect information about what’s going on in regards to nutrition and physical activity in Colorado schools, thanks to a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Their first goal was to understand the impact of the Local Wellness Policies. Now they’ll move on to the next: identifying the key school environments and policies that really do impact healthy eating and physical activity. She expects that work to consume most of 2011, and hopes to submit findings for publication toward the end of next year.

For more information

Read the study findings related to physical activity in this report, “Early Impact of the Federally Mandated Local Wellness Policy on Physical Activity in Rural, Low-Income Elementary Schools in Colorado.”

Read an abstract of nutrition-related findings of 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.” Downloading the full article may require a subscription or a one-time fee.