A Wellness Wake-up Call

Part One


“A Wellness Wake-up Call,” originally appeared, as one article, in the November 2013 issue of School Nutrition Magazine. Beyond Breakfast blogger Christina Uticone authored the piece, which is presented here in two parts.

“Serving school breakfast—especially through alternative options such as breakfast in the classroom and grab ‘n’ go—is possibly the easiest, most cost-effective and most directly helpful step schools can take to improve school and student wellness.” In no uncertain terms, the authors of The Wellness Impact: Enhancing Academic Success Through Healthy School Environments, summed up what most School Nutrition readers have known for years. But now you have more research findings to help you make the case with naysayers—and more resources to help you overcome the obstacles to expanding school breakfast service in your schools and districts.

Released jointly last March by the National Dairy Council (NDC), GENYOUth Foundation, the American College of Sports Medicine and the American School Health Association, The Wellness Impact directly addresses how schools can play a vital role in shaping the future through a combination of improved nutrition and increased opportunities for physical activity. Urging schools to develop comprehensive policies that create an overall “culture of wellness,” the report specifically illustrates the roles of school breakfast and physical activity, citing their positive student outcomes in the classroom—and beyond. The report’s science-based “learning connection,” linking good nutrition and physical activity goals to improved academic and health outcomes for students, is sure to become a useful instrument in your own toolbox of resources. Ithis idea of nutrition and physical activity complementing and not competing with educational goals will be of great interest to school administrators.

The findings of the research summarized in The Wellness Impact echo what child nutrition advocates have been preaching about school breakfast (and comprehensive school wellness approaches) for years. But, with little change in the wide participation gap between those eating school breakfast (12 million) and school lunch (31 million), it’s an important research report that can serve as a cornerstone in redoubled efforts to make new ground in closing that gap.

After all, few things are more contagious than success! As more managers and directors persevere in starting and expanding service options, the word is spreading—school breakfast works! It’s a hunger-fighting, participation-building, academics-enhancing program that has been underutilized for too long in schools across the country.

As with any change, the challenge lies in breaking down barriers, and that’s where this report can be particularly helpful. Available online, The Wellness Impact addresses the importance of breakfast and increased student physical activity using language helpful for school nutrition professionals, especially in your efforts to overcome common obstacles in boosting breakfast participation. These include such enduring hurdles as stakeholder resistance, resource scarcity and profitability concerns.

Learning Lightbulbs

The opportunity to make the “learning connection” is perhaps the strongest argument in favor of any school wellness policy. When students have the tools they need to learn, they will blossom academically; studies show that students who eat breakfast at school demonstrate better classroom behavior, log fewer absences and tardies and perform better on standardized tests. When kids eat breakfast they demonstrate broader vocabularies, improved memory and faster speed on cognitive tests, and they score higher in both reading and math.

Early in March 2013, Jean Ragalie, RD, NDC president, wrote about The Wellness Impact on the NDC blog, “The Dairy Report.” In her article, Ragalie stressed the whole-child approach to health that is reinforced by the values of the learning connection: “With American children spending more than 2,000 hours in school each year, it’s clear that in-school wellness initiatives (e.g., Fuel Up to Play 60) and alternate school breakfast programs, can be an engine for positive change to help achieve wellness goals, including being a part of the solution to overcome food insecurity.”

The learning connection concept ultimately applies to students as individuals, but access to good nutrition and physical activity in a school setting has lasting effects that reverberate far beyond a single student or even a school community. Schools certainly feel the immediate costs of failing to prioritize wellness—poor test scores for students, lower standardized test scores school-wide, reduced funding resulting from absenteeism, which is why it is so important to share this report with school administrators and boards of education.

But we also should be concerned about the long-term costs, which continue to add up long after a child stops attending school—and extend far beyond the city limits. The Wellness Impact report warns, “Business and the military may face higher annual medical costs, fewer recruits, lost productivity and other problems linked with overweight and obesity.”

A Popular Culture Indeed

Fortunately, many U.S. communities seem to be demonstrating an increased awareness of the dangers of putting our collective heads in the sand on the issue of health and learning. Indeed, a “culture of wellness” has proven to be a winning strategy at the El Monte City (Calif.) School District in California. This fall, Director of Nutrition Services Robert Lewis, PhD, SNS, is rolling out breakfast-in-the-classroom (BIC) at 14 schools.

According to Lewis, wellness policies—including school breakfast—are well-received by both students and stakeholders. “Everyone here knows we are on a healthy path, and we have a lot of buy-in, because people are on board with moving in that direction,” he explains.

When it comes to breakfast expansion, the key, says Lewis, is allowing principals to come up with a plan that works for each individual school, rather than trying to apply a one-size-fits-all solution. Once principals understand that they can customize the program to meet their needs, they are much more receptive to the BIC idea. “We have been feeding kids breakfast on test days for years, so the benefits of breakfast aren’t exactly a foreign concept,” notes Lewis, citing the well-known benefits and reporting a significant participation jump (80-90%) since the middle school adopted a new grab ‘n’ go service format.

Check back on Monday, January 30th for Part Two of “A Wellness Wake-up Call,” for strategies and solutions to implementing new wellness policies, and to learn how the Wellness Impact Report can help you make data-driven arguments to win over reluctant stakeholders.

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