As a parent who is concerned about nutrition, there is nothing more frustrating than sending your child to a school where he or she may be loaded up with sugary treats. And for a like-minded teacher, it's tough to see a student's lunch box stuffed with Ding Dongs and soda.
It turns out, parents, teachers, and the school staff should be actively involved and encouraged to ensure a child is eating the proper foods. Kaiser Permanente has just published a study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity that verifies how a system-wide participatory approach will have more organic, positive results.
For three years, researchers followed 400 students in eight elementary and middle schools to track and alter their nutritional intake. The study was called The Healthy Options for Nutrition Environments in Schools (Healthy ONES). Using a public health approach, the researchers encouraged children and the adults who live and work with them to actively try to promote healthy eating. Compared to control schools, these "intervention schools" had a 30 percent decrease in unhealthy food and beverage consumption. The control schools, during this same time period, had a 26 percent increase in unhealthy consumption.
So, how did they do it? For one thing, the school staff (teachers and administrators) agreed to stop offering food as prizes. School fundraisers and celebratory events, such as carnivals, focused on games rather than fat-laden snacks like traditional pizza and popcorn. And, by rejecting the old bake sale idea of raising funds, schools offered exercise-type events like fund-runners and "jog-a-thons."
According to the study's lead author, Karen J. Coleman, this fits in well with an overall approach to healthier eating the nation should be adopting to fight weight gain in kids. In other words, just getting rid of a couple school vending machines isn't going to cut it. "Schools are an ideal place for establishing life-long healthy eating habits, but until now that's been easier said than done," said Coleman in a Kaiser Permanente press release. "The Healthy ONES study helped us understand how communities and schools could work together to get kids to eat healthier at school and help address childhood obesity."
Perhaps most surprising is the fact that in these intervention schools, the researchers reported an increase in healthy lunch food children brought from home. This is a sign that when behaviors are modified system-wide in school, the children bring these messages home and parents respond appropriately. "Our findings are significant because previous school-based interventions often have had little success in changing behaviors," Coleman said. "The Healthy ONES study suggests that community-driven process interventions that focus on implementation and stakeholder engagement can help schools implement their current federally mandated wellness policies. These types of interventions may have a better chance to impact child obesity than other attempts to change school health practices."
What do you think of this study? Share your thoughts about school nutrition programs in the comments below.
Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and Forbes.com about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.