Schools Help Mississippi Create a Healthier Future
In 2005, 43 percent of Mississippi’s elementary school students were obese or overweight—by 2011, those rates had dropped to 37.3 percent. This marked a major turning point. After years of steady increases in rates of childhood obesity, the state saw a significant decline in rates among its youngest students, including both Black and White children. One possible reason for this success: a major overhaul of Mississippi public schools.
With funding from The Bower Foundation in 2003, the State Department of Education created the Office of Healthy Schools to assist districts in implementing coordinated school health programs statewide. In 2006, the Mississippi State Board of Education set new nutrition standards for the foods and drinks sold in school vending machines. Schools replaced sugary sports drinks and sodas with water and other drinks that had less sugar and fewer calories. Instead of ice cream and cookies, students could buy nuts, fruits, and other healthier snacks.
In 2007, the Mississippi Legislature passed the Healthy Students Act, which required public schools to use healthier cooking methods, offer more nutritious meals, provide more time for physical activity, and develop health education programs. The Act also called for schools to involve parents and the surrounding community in efforts to create a healthier environment for all students. According to an independent evaluation supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, schools have made progress to implement many of the Act’s provisions.
Schools are now offering healthier lunches: combi-ovens have replaced deep fryers; more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are offered at lunch; and skim or low-fat milk is offered instead of high-fat milk. Schools are providing more physical education and conducting fitness tests. They also are offering more health education, and most have active school wellness councils.
“Kids, teachers, parents, and policy-makers have been overwhelmingly supportive of these changes,” said Therese Hanna, executive director of the Center for Mississippi Health Policy, who leads the ongoing evaluation of the Healthy Students Act. “There are challenges, but time and time again, passionate champions have stepped up, and there’s been an amazing spirit of cooperation between state and school leaders.”
Coach Larry Calhoun is one of those champions. Through the state’s Move to Learn initiative, he’s helping teachers across the state lead students through short physical activity breaks during the school day. According to Calhoun, helping students move more doesn’t require a lot of money or special equipment—just enthusiasm and the will to make it work. Thanks to the program, teachers and kids across Mississippi are dancing in the halls, practicing karate kicks as they learn to spell, and taking morning walks around campus.
Mississippi is clearly making progress, but like states throughout the country, the progress isn’t shared equally. Because obesity rates among White students have dropped so much in recent years, disparities in obesity rates between White and Black students are greater now than they were in 2005. The good news is that rates for Black students finally have leveled off, which is major progress after years of steady increases.
According to Hanna, a continued focus on making healthy changes in all of the state’s schools is critical to addressing health disparities because changes in schools have the potential to impact hundreds of thousands of kids across Mississippi.
“Schools can really help level the playing field when it comes to giving kids healthy choices,” Hanna said. “They can offer nutritious foods and time for safe, physical play to kids from all corners of the state, regardless of race or income.”