School District Wellness Policies: 2006-2011

Evaluating Progress and Potential for Improving Children’s Health Five Years after the Federal Mandate

A report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Bridging the Gap program finds that progress to improve school district wellness policies has stalled.

It also shows that there is a wide gap in compliance among the required provisions, primarily because many districts have not adopted guidelines for competitive foods and beverages—those offered outside of school meal programs.

The report, School District Wellness Policies: Evaluating Progress and Potential for Improving Children’s Health Five Years After the Federal Mandate, examines the latest data on wellness policies, including provisions for school meal guidelines, physical activity goals, and other requirements of the federal mandate. It also compares wellness policy guidelines with the 2007 Institute of Medicine nutritional standards for competitive foods.

The major findings and trends presented identify areas where progress has been made in adopting and strengthening the written policies, as well as opportunities for improvement. For example, the policies have become more comprehensive and stronger since 2006–07, but progress has stalled and the policies are relatively weak overall. In fact, five years after the federal mandate went into effect, the policies in place address about one-half of the provisions examined for this report and only slightly more than one-quarter of the provisions examined were strong.

Other key findings from the 2010–11 school year include:

  • Only 46 percent of students were in a district with a wellness policy that included all of the required elements, and that percentage dropped significantly from 54 percent in 2009–10. This decrease was influenced by the decline in competitive food and beverage guidelines, which has dropped in recent years.
  • The strength of competitive food and beverage policies varies greatly. For example, such policies are stronger at the elementary school level than they are at middle and high school levels. Policies also are more likely to limit the sale of unhealthy items in vending machines than in school stores or á la carte settings.
  • Although many students were in a district that banned regular soda from vending machines, stores, and á la carte lines, far fewer districts banned other sugary drinks, such as sports drinks, sweetened teas, and high-calorie fruit drinks. Bans on all sugary drinks were virtually non-existent at the middle and high school levels.

These findings and the conclusions offered in the report are especially relevant to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s proposed rule for competitive foods and beverages, which was released in February 2013. They also may help inform USDA’s forthcoming rule on wellness policies and USDA’s efforts to provide technical assistance to school districts regarding their wellness policies, which is required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

This report provides updated results from the most comprehensive, ongoing nationwide analysis of written wellness policies, published by Bridging the Gap in 2010. Findings are based on nationally representative samples of school districts from the 2006–07 through the 2010–11 school years, which were the first five years following the required implementation date for wellness policies.