D.C. has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the country. And so five years ago, the District implemented tougher legislation to improve overall health in schools. The Healthy Schools Act set higher nutritional standards, requiring less fat and salt in meals and more whole grains and fresh salads. The law also increased the physical education requirements fivefold.
Now, a team of researchers has found there has been an increased focus on wellness but there is more to be done.
Almost all D.C. schools are serving meals that meet the higher nutritional standards, the majority have a nurse available and almost half have school gardens.
Stacey Snelling, a professor of health studies at American University and coauthor of the study, says schools are getting creative when it comes to implementing physical activity with after school Zumba classes, fitness breaks between lessons and ‘bike to school’ days. But she says they’re still struggling to meet the requirements for physical education classes.
"The provision to have elementary schools and middle schools to reach 150 and 225 minutes of physical education respectively, has been a challenge and only two schools at this time are meeting that provision," Snelling says.
Health education is another area where the results are mixed. The goal is 75 minutes a week for elementary and middle school children. What they get now is approximately twice what it was before the law passed, but half what it should be.
Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) championed the law five years ago and says she’s “delighted” with the results. She points to a finding which showed the more a school implemented aspects of the Healthy Schools Act, the more likely students at that school tested on grade level in math. "We know that healthy children are better learners and this establishes that."
One of the limitations of the study is that researchers can only collect school-wide data. They don’t have a way to track individual students so they aren’t sure whether the law has made a dent in the childhood obesity levels in the District.
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