Assessing the Impact of the Mississippi Healthy Students Act: Year One Report

The Program Being Evaluated

Mississippi has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the United States. As a result, Mississippi children face significant negative consequences for their health status, academic performance and future productivity. The state, in turn, faces economic costs that burden both the private and public sectors. Mississippi policy-makers recognized the need to address the issue, and in 2007, enacted the Healthy Students Act. This comprehensive legislation and regulations aimed at transforming the environment of the state’s schools to promote healthy eating and physical activity among the students and reduce the impact of childhood obesity.

About the Evaluation

In 2008, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation awarded a five-year grant to the Center for Mississippi Health Policy to evaluate the impact of the Mississippi Healthy Students Act and associated regulations on childhood obesity. Using this grant and additional funding from the Bower Foundation, the Center has collaborated with three Mississippi universities–the University of Southern Mississippi, Mississippi State University, and the University of Mississippi–to conduct a comprehensive set of studies to measure the impact of the statewide policies.

The research conducted during the first year of the evaluation project provides the base from which changes will be measured over the following three years. Researchers will monitor changes in implementation of the various components of the Healthy Students Act, as well as the health practices within students’ homes. Shifts in perspectives and attitudes of parents, adolescents, and state and local policy-makers will be monitored as well.

Summary of Methods

The evaluators conducted:

  • Surveys of local and state policy-makers to assess their knowledge and attitudes regarding childhood obesity, their support for policy approaches to address the problem, and potential obstacles to implementation of statewide policies at the local level;
  • Surveys of parents and adolescents to assess attitudes and changes in family environments and children’s health behaviors during the evaluation period; and
  • On-site assessments of school nutrition environments to measure the stage of implementation and level of compliance with Mississippi’s established school health policies.

Knowledge and Impact

Year One Findings

  • Most schools were reported to have implemented local school wellness committees and established school health councils; however, more emphasis needs to be placed on the work of the councils, particularly in ensuring that councils report to school boards as required.
  • Middle schools have demonstrated the most progress toward full implementation of local school wellness policies, followed by high schools, then elementary schools.
  • While parents express strong support in general for school policies that require physical education and healthy eating, they are not widely aware of specific policies being implemented in their child’s school.
  • Policy-makers at the state and district levels demonstrate a keen understanding of the impact childhood obesity has on the health of Mississippians and the state’s economy. Policy-makers are also aware that childhood obesity is a complicated issue that requires a multi-faceted approach. Similarly, while policy-makers convey strong support for full implementation of the Healthy Students Act, they also express a practical and realistic perspective in recognizing the constraints that schools face in fulfilling its requirements.
  • Statewide data showing trends in childhood obesity rates indicate that the rates may be leveling off in Mississippi after decades of steady increases. On the other hand, disparities in obesity rates between white and nonwhite students appear to be increasing.