Janet Brown - Leadership, Policy, and Change

Leadership, Policy, and Change

Leadership, Policy, and Change

An extraordinary opportunity is unfolding across the country, and all of us can contribute to its success.

In response to a federal mandate, public school districts are forming Wellness Committees — working groups entrusted with the responsibility for developing Wellness Policies for their districts. When these Wellness Policies take effect by fall of 2006, they will collectively begin to influence the health and learning outcomes of all public school children in America.

Wellness Committee volunteers can play a leadership role in drafting policies that ensure high standards for health and learning are adopted by the district. The Wellness Policy development process can serve the purpose of a town meeting on wellness, with the community’s children at the heart of the discussion. The federal government has stipulated five areas affecting student well-being that Wellness Policies must address: nutrition education and activity, guidelines for foods served at school, assurance of minimum standards, a way to measure success, and a plan to ensure that the community is fully represented in the process.

Used to its fullest potential, the Wellness Policy development process removes, or severely limits, the influence of commercial and outside interests over children at school, and restores authority for decisions affecting the health of children to their parents and communities. It provides an opportunity for the entire district to define, and align on, a shared vision of wellness. Wellness Committees are best prepared to fulfill this responsibility when their membership reflects the cultural, ethnic, and economic diversity of the communities they serve. They do their best work when they encourage a full dialogue between those who work inside the formal school district — school boards, superintendents, principals, educators, food service professionals, school nurses—and those who are external to it, but are fully invested in it, including parents, grandparents, students, and community members.

In light of this exciting and extraordinary challenge, beginning this month and throughout the year ahead, the Center for Ecoliteracy, in collaboration with Slow Food USA and the Chez Panisse Foundation, is distributing a Model Wellness Policy Guide. The Guide is designed to support the work of Wellness Committee members. It contains language, tools, and instructions for drafting and adopting policies with high standards for learning and health.

The Model Wellness Policy Guide reflects a systems approach to problem solving that makes practical connections between public education and public health. This holistic perspective — that health is both a matter of individual awareness and responsibility and a result of societal function and support — is fundamental to its design. The process encourages schools and communities to come to a shared understanding of wellness—one in which community values and standards can prevail in decision-making too often compromised by other considerations.

The Guide supports an understanding of wellness that emphasizes connections among diet, activity, health, environment, and academic achievement. It recognizes that student wellness is a result of the balanced interplay of these relationships, and that schools can nurture student wellness by strengthening this pattern of connections throughout the learning environment. The policies contained in the Guide promote the integration of learning experiences linked to diet and health with the core curriculum. These kinds of connections greatly amplify the potential for student health and achievement.

Experience has shown that schools will inevitably be challenged in their educational mission, regardless of how skilled or committed educators are, if students do not arrive at school healthy, fit, and ready to learn. A healthy diet and exercise are directly connected to students’ ability to learn and achieve high standards in school. If public schools hope to close the “achievement gap” they need to address the nutrition and activity gap that daily undermines student wellness and learning outcomes.

Wellness Committees should bear in mind that students are part of the school community too, and are meant to be part of the process. They are the best judges of whether or not the program is working. It is crucial to include students in the development of Wellness Policies, and to design a student role on the standing Wellness Committee that oversees implementation. When students conduct and participate in taste tests and opinion surveys, schools learn the real truth about how school meal programs measure up. Students are empowered to improve meals served at school when summaries of student opinion polls and other student feedback are included in a Wellness Committee’s annual report to the Board of Education.

Supporting our children’s health and academic achievement is reason enough to participate on a Wellness Committee, but the Wellness Policy development process offers so much more. It represents a fresh start for schools. At a time when diet-related diseases affecting school-age children are on an alarming rise, and school environments and meal programs are suspected contributors to the problem, the Wellness Policy development process supports constructive community engagement and problem solving with the well-being of children in mind. Introducing learning experiences connected to diet and health through school gardens and kitchen classrooms, serving fresh, seasonal, locally grown foods, and designing eating experiences that promote lifelong wellness, are practical ways to ensure a healthier future for all communities.

The process offers us a way we can all work together, wherever we live, to ensure that all children will have access to fresh, delicious, nutritious meals every school day, served in a pleasant environment, with sufficient time to eat. It can guarantee opportunities for invigorating physical exercise to every student every day. It can ensure that activities and experiences consistent with the goals of wellness are integrated with the formal learning day, so that students begin to understand how food reaches the table and the implications that has for their health and future.

The Model Wellness Policy Guide includes ideas, model language, and specific recommendations that comprise a foundation for student wellness. Using language and policy recommendations from the Guide increases the likelihood that a more holistic and complete understanding of wellness will result. Adoption of these values-based policies, in school district after school district, has the potential to generate change beyond the local level through the persuasive power of our collective alignment on shared goals and high standards for student wellness.

The best interests of our children are served when this shared vision of wellness evolves without compromise, integrating community standards and values with healthy practices modeled at school. If we fail to establish a policy of high standards for wellness as our starting point, before addressing where the time, money, personnel, and resources will come from to realize this vision, then lesser results are inevitable. The Wellness Policy development process represents one of the most significant opportunities we have ever had to make dramatic and positive improvements in the health and well-being of every child.

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