Each year, elementary school students in the United States spend an average of 943 hours in the classroom, according to Pew Research Center data. With such a captive audience, schools are an ideal place for children to learn the importance of nutrition and living a healthy lifestyle.
School wellness programs are an important factor of a quality education system and create an opportunity for registered dietitian nutritionists to work with school administrators to create a powerful health and wellness curriculum.
"If we want our students to be college and career ready, they have to be fit in every domain of wellness to compete globally," says Teresa Winters, assistant principal of Lords Park Elementary in Elgin, Ill.
Outside of a child's family environment, school systems have a higher influence on a child's life and health behavior outcomes than other institutions, says Brooke Schantz, MS, RDN, CCSD, LDN, adjunct professor at Dominican University. That's why school staff and district administration need to step up and educate the newest generation on healthy lifestyle habits.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 18 percent of children aged 6 to 11 years old in the U.S. were obese in 2012, an increase from just 7 percent in 1980.
"With high rates of childhood overweight and obesity, every educational avenue needs to be considered in order to help change future outcomes for our children," says Schantz.
Some schools are beginning to take their nutrition policies to the next level — minimizing or eliminating the need for food-based fundraising and maximizing opportunities of activity-related fundraising. Schools in Oak Park District 97 (Ill.) follow the mission of its Wellness Council, which is to "support healthy lifestyle choices and academic achievement through promotion of great health awareness to the school community through education, activities and services." District 97 recommends its schools use their health education guidelines, titled "Nourish to Flourish," which include family tips for hydration, fitness, nutrition and proper hours of sleep.
"Nutrition can change people's lives by improving a child's chance for academic success as well as their quality of life. Educating the kids can turn the tide and change early morbidity and mortality," says Kirsten Straughan, MS, RD, LDN, CCSD, chair of the District 97 wellness committee.
Overall, wellness education and policies for children in elementary school are gaining prominence as a priority for local and national leaders, and registered dietitian nutritionists should continue to join in on the effort of school districts to meet and exceed the goal of helping students become healthier while lowering rates of childhood obesity.
Reviewed by Jill Kohn, MS, RDN, LDN