Schools Often Fail to Follow Their Own Written Wellness Policies

Release Date: November 18, 2014 | By Milly Dawson
Research Source: Health Promotion Practice


  • Public schools are required to adopt wellness policies in order to receive federal funding for student breakfasts, lunches and other foods.
  • A wide divide between written public school wellness policies and actual day-to-day practices was found in a new study in Health Promotion Practice.
  • Public schools are not effectively communicating their wellness policies/goals to key stakeholders, such as administrators, teachers or parents.
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To receive federal funding for student breakfasts and lunches, public schools must adopt school-wide wellness policies. A new study in the journal Health Promotion Practice finds a wide divide between written policies and schools' actual practices.

"Our findings show a disconnect between what's written in school wellness policies and what school personnel report is happening on a day-to-day basis," said lead author Jennifer Lucarelli, PhD, assistant professor of health sciences at Oakland University in Michigan. Wellness policies typically address nutritional issues, including the foods served at school breakfasts and lunches, at functions and in vending machines, and include physical education and activity goals.

The researchers found that public schools are generally not sharing or effectively communicating their goals for improvement, which should be guided by their wellness policy, with key stakeholders such as administrators, teachers and parents. This gap impedes the implementation and coordination of wellness efforts. "What's being done isn't being documented and shared across the school community through the wellness policy," Lucarelli noted.

Child nutrition expert Jill Castle, MS, RDN, author of the book Fearless Feeding, observed her local school district's first attempts to write a wellness policy in 2004. She recalled that the policy drafters considered the many issues they had to address and, not knowing what other mandates would be coming, opted for a vague policy full of loopholes. "Many other districts responded similarly," Castle observed. Since then, she has participated in the writing of two specific, effective school wellness policies.

Lucarelli examined data obtained in 2007 and 2008 for the School Nutrition Advances Kids (SNAK) study from 48 low-income Michigan middle schools SNAK participants. Within that sample, 41 principals or assistant principals and 46 food service directors completed a survey assessing their schools' nutrition policies and actual wellness practices. Questions covered topics such as discarding damaged produce, displaying food attractively and surveying students about their food preferences and opinions of the service. The researchers used strict rules to grade each school's wellness policy for comprehensiveness and strength.

The researchers found that 40 percent of the federally required policies were included in the school wellness policies and only 19 percent of the policies included "specific and required strategies." Lucarelli suggested that schools and districts use more specific language to guide implementation of their wellness policy.

Nearly all schools in the study used templates – prepared by states, nonprofit organizations or businesses – to create their wellness policies, the researchers found. Since many schools adopted their state's template, the authors wrote that "encouraging states to develop... high-quality templates may be an effective tactic" to enhance wellness policy quality.

Study co-author Katherine Alaimo, PhD, an associate professor at Michigan State University, led the SNAK research. Lucarelli's study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Healthy Eating Research program, the USDA and the Michigan Department of Community Health.

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Health Promotion Practice, a bimonthly peer-reviewed journal of the Society for Public Health Education (SOPHE), publishes authoritative, peer-reviewed articles devoted to the practical application of health promotion and education.

Little Association Between Wellness Policies and School-Reported Nutrition Practices. Jennifer F. Lucarelli, Katherine Alaimo, Elaine S. Belansky, Ellen Mang, Richard Miles, Deanne K. Kelleher, Deborah Bailey, Nicholas B. Drzal, and Hui Liu. Health Promot Pract doi:10.1177/1524839914550245

Tags for this article:
Children and Young People's Health   Health and Education   Lifestyle and Prevention   Diet and Nutrition   Obesity   Exercise/Physical Activity   Environment and Health   Promote your Health  

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