A New Season of Collaboration and Possibility in School Health

As much of the country recovers from a brutal winter, the buds of spring are finally beginning to sprout. A few days ago, I passed an elementary school as a group of students burst onto the courtyard for one of the first outdoor recesses of the year, as if emerging from a long hibernation.

I couldn't help but think that too many of our young people aren't getting the physical activity or nutrition they need to flourish. In fact, only 20 percent of school districts require daily recess today, making scenes like the one I witnessed seem like a privilege, rather than a right for all children.

When children lack opportunities to be active and well-nourished, it diminishes their ability to learn and achieve their full potential. We are now seeing far too many young people suffering from diseases such as type 2 diabetes and hypertension, which used to be considered adult diseases. Furthermore, poor nutrition, inactivity and obesity put kids at greater risk for developing a host of devastating and costly, chronic health problems as adults.

The good news is that a strong body of research shows that our nation's schools can play a powerful role in improving the health of young people. Many research studies conducted over the past several decades -- often supported by the National Institutes of Health -- have demonstrated that child nutrition can be improved through high-quality school breakfast, lunch, and nutrition education programs, as well as strong policies on the availability of healthy snack foods and beverages. Research also has shown that physical activity levels can be increased by physical education and extracurricular physical activity programs, as well as opportunities for recess and physical activity breaks in the classroom.

We know what is needed for effective school health programs. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has summarized best practices in its School Health Guidelines to Promote Healthy Eating and Physical Activity. The CDC and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation provide an easy-to-use online questionnaire that schools can use to assess how well they are implementing best practices, and both the U.S. Department of Agriculture's HealthierUS School Challenge and the Alliance honor those schools that are creating healthy environments for their students annually.

Though we know what needs to be done, we have to find the will to do it. Educational policy makers need to embrace what most researchers and educators have come to understand: academics and health don't need to be competing priorities, they complement one another. Healthy kids learn better.

With so much on their plates already, the teachers, administrators, parents and staff who lead school health efforts need strong support to adopt health-promoting policies and practices. School district wellness policies, mandated by federal law, need to be comprehensive. With this kind of support, local school champions for health can achieve amazing things.

James Bowie Elementary School in Dallas, is an outstanding example of a school that has made great strides over the past several years, with wellness champion and physical education teacher Sharon Foster at the helm. The school's diverse wellness council sets clear priorities around nutrition and physical fitness. All students at James Bowie receive 150 minutes of physical education, in addition to health education lessons. James Bowie has improved the nutritional quality of school meals, provides physical activity breaks in the classroom, and offers a walking and running club for students before and after school. Not surprisingly, student physical fitness scores have improved, a huge accomplishment for a school in which 100 percent of the students are from low-income households. In 2014 James Bowie became the first school in Texas to earn the highest honor possible from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation: the National Healthy Schools Gold Award.

James Bowie Elementary School and thousands of other schools across the country are showing that the lessons learned from decades of research can be applied in all schools. However, the truth is that most of our nation's schools are not there yet. We need everyone to play a role in making schools healthy places. Whether you're a teacher, a parent or grandparent, the head of a company, or a concerned citizen, you can help. Here are a few steps you can take to get started:

  • Eat breakfast or lunch at your child's cafeteria to learn more about both the challenges and opportunities that exist with school meals.
  • Encourage your school district to adopt a strong wellness policy. Use Action for Healthy Kids' Wellness Policy Tool or the Alliance's Model Wellness Policy for guidance.
  • Support a local champion by recognizing his or her commitment to the health of the next generation.

A new season is upon us, and it is a great time to commit ourselves to making healthy schools the norm, not the exception.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Action for Healthy Kids, in conjunction with Every Kid Healthy Week taking place in schools nationwide, April 19-25, 2015. For more information about Every Kid Healthy, email info@everykidhealthy.org.