New School Year Means New Opportunities to Build Healthy Campuses

Oct 14, 2014, 5:14 PM, Posted by

A young girl smiles for the camera while eating lunch at school.

September always brings the promise of a fresh start, especially for school age kids and their parents. New teachers, new books, new supplies, new shoes. And hopefully, a renewed emphasis on healthy choices. This week is National School Lunch Week, a time to highlight the importance of serving healthy school meals to students throughout the U.S.

Making sure all children have access to healthy food and drinks is a key priority for RWJF. Schools are where kids spend the most amount of time outside of their homes, so it’s an ideal place to instill lessons about the importance of eating healthy and being active. That’s why we are leading a number of initiatives to highlight how healthy school food, as well as recess and physical education (PE), contribute to nationwide efforts to reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity.

Last month, we hosted a ‘back-to-school’ Google Hangout focusing on how schools can ensure that students eat better and move more. One of my fellow panelists, Principal Mickey Komins from Philadelphia’s Anne Frank Elementary School, shared how his school completely transformed its campus. In order to get kids to eat healthier foods, the Anne Frank school started serving salads at lunch and replaced cupcakes and other sugar and salt-laden snacks, often served at school celebrations, with healthier options like fruit salad. To complement the nutrition improvements, the school offered physical activity programs such as yoga sessions and walking clubs, in addition to PE class and recess. Komins stressed that his school’s incredible story was possible because he engaged the entire school community—students, staff, and parents.

Parents are crucial allies in the quest for healthy school lunch, as underscored by national poll results we released with The Pew Charitable Trusts and the American Heart Association. The poll found that 72 percent of parents favor national standards for both school meals and snacks, while even larger majorities expressed concern about the state of children’s health and childhood obesity. The survey reinforces that parents want us to keep moving forward on making schools the healthiest places they can be.

That’s why we were so pleased to help celebrate 250 of the healthiest schools in the country at the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Leaders’ Summit. Representatives from the schools shared their stories on Capitol Hill and in interviews broadcast across America. President Bill Clinton offered his personal congratulations to the inspiring group of educators. At the official awards ceremony, USDA’S Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, Kevin Concannon, shared some great examples of innovative solutions that schools are implementing to encourage students to make healthier choices. He also hit on a crucial, if sometimes overlooked point: healthy food and physical activity aren’t just good for kids’ health—they have also been shown to improve their academic achievement.

The drive to make schools as healthy as possible can’t be limited to a certain week or month on the calendar. It requires a year-round effort, and it takes everyone to make a difference. I encourage teachers, administrators, students, parents and community members to look for ways to help their local schools make the healthy choice the easy choice before, during and after school. And please share any ideas and successes you’ve had in the comments. Whether it’s in the cafeteria, classroom, hallway, or gymnasium, schools have powerful opportunities to help all children grow up healthy and build a Culture of Health across the country.