When my son started kindergarten this past September, I sought out ways to get involved and immediately signed up to volunteer during lunchtime. During my first day in the cafeteria, I was shocked to see how much sugar children were consuming at lunch. Alongside a slice of pizza, students were given a package of cookies topping over 20 grams of sugar for the entire package. Having treats side-by-side with the main entrée made it easy for students to eat the sugary stuff before the main dish or even side salad for that matter. The shocking part was that cookies were not even on the menu!
Aside from the food, I noticed a few other simple ways to encourage healthier eating and water consumption amongst students in the cafeteria and felt empowered to start making changes right away. My first step toward making change was meeting with the principal and voicing my concerns and suggestions, both as a parent and nutrition professional. I was thankful that he was totally receptive and agreed that we needed to reinstate our School Wellness Council (SWC) and work as a team toward goals on making our school a healthier environment for students, staff and parents. First thing was finding out exactly what School Wellness Council entailed and how I could help to create and grow this program.
What is a School Wellness Council?
According to the Department of Education, a School Wellness Council is an advisory group of parents, school staff and community members who work together with the school to promote a healthy school community. These councils help to organize fitness and nutrition events, set school wellness policies and make sure that physical education and health education instruction are prioritized school-wide. School Wellness Council members work together to improve the health and academic success of students by supporting them in an environment where health is valued.
Where to start?
After forming a school wellness council, plan to host a meeting to invite all school parents to discuss the new initiative and help keep families informed on changes. Next, search for resources that will support your efforts. After doing research online, I was excited to find a tremendous amount of resources and organizations that support wellness in schools. Feeling overwhelmed (in a good way) by all of the opportunities, I explored other organizations that would offer resources, guidance and grants. Here are a few of the many organizations that have been beyond supportive toward our efforts:
- The Department of Education’s Office of School Wellness Programs offers free training for school staff on nutrition, physical education and overall wellness, grant opportunities and a portal where you can register your school and create goals and action plans! The manager of the Office of School Wellness Programs happily met with us to discuss opportunities and ways we can partner to improve the health of our school community. They also offer school wellness grants throughout the year and we were very fortunate to have recently been awarded one grant!
- GrowNYC is a hands-on non-profit where you can register your school garden (if one is available) and they also offer grants to help expand an existing garden or create a new one. They offer wonderful educational seminars for teachers and school staff as well.
- The Whole Kids Foundation by Whole Foods Market offers garden and salad bar grant opportunities in addition to a Healthy Teachers Program deisgned to empower educators to improve their personal health and wellness so they can be the healthiest possible role model for students. You can also look forward to free educational downloads for students as well!
- The Alliance for a Healthier Generation has been another incredible source of information and you can register your school with them online, invite team members and set goals and action plans in a variety of areas! They are also extremely responsive and connected me with the food supervisor from our district. We are now in the midst of planning a parent and student sampling of a new lunch menu with more plant-based meals!
Childhood obesity remains one of the most serious health epidemics we face in America with nearly 1 in 3 children in the United States being overweight or obese, putting them at risk for serious health problems. Between afterschool program and other extracurricular activities, many children spend more time at school than they do at home and experience shows that schools can be powerful places to initiate behavioral and environmental changes for students and staff. In fact, studies have shown that teachers modeling healthy food choices have a far greater impact on kids behavior around food choices than nutrition information alone.
School wellness councils are essential for addressing issues facing the health and well being of our children. As with any new program, wellness initiatives take time and dedication to develop and the result of seeing children eating healthier, learning lifelong lessons about nutrition and getting more physically active will make all of the hard work worth it. So don’t give up! With dedication, positivity and support, anything is possible!