Teachers and school leaders know that healthy students learn best and that a malnourished child can't learn. And since autumn 2006, federal law has required every U.S. school district which participates in the federal school meal program to address that with a Wellness Policy. So it's hard to understand why schools simultaneously actively undermine their students' health and their own Wellness Policies.

Among the areas addressed by such polices are goals for nutrition education, physical activity, and other school activities promoting student wellness; nutrition guidelines for all food sold or served to students at school; and a plan for evaluating implementation of the policy. The good news for advocates of healthier school food is that for the first time, districts must now create at least some kind of nutrition guidelines for all food available at school, although the specifics of those guidelines are left to the individual districts to decide.

Sadly, even in a forward-thinking school district like the San Francisco Unified (SFUSD), which first established a Wellness Policy in autumn 2003, a full three years before the federal mandate, there are many ways in which individual schools can undermine the effectiveness of such a policy. Sometimes it is vendors, whose main concern is their own profit, who violate district policy. Other times it is well-intentioned parents or school staff trying to accomplish a separate worthy goal, like raising money for school activities or promoting positive behaviors, who are the culprits.

Here are five of the most common ways school districts undermine their own Wellness Policies:

  1. Vending machines

    Most high schools and many middle schools nationwide have at least a few vending machines on campus, and San Francisco is no exception. The nutrition guidelines that a school district adopts in the Wellness Policy apply to the products offered for sale in these machines. San Francisco’s Wellness Policy provides an approved list of products for vending machines which schools and vendors are required to follow when stocking the machines. Unfortunately, some Principals don’t bother to check if these machines are stocked with products on the approved list. Other Principals who try to be vigilant find that the vendors stocking these machines promise to use only approved products, but in reality include whatever they think will sell. As a result, even with a strong Wellness Policy in place, vending machines often are a convenient source of unhealthy snacks for students.

  2. Competitive Sales

    In the San Francisco public schools, the federal meal program is operated by Student Nutrition Services (SNS), which runs all cafeteria food sales. Since adoption of the Wellness Policy in 2003, all food sold or served by SNS has met district standards, which are stricter than those set by the federal government for school meals. Students who eat cafeteria food are assured of getting a meal that is low in fat and sugar, contains fresh fruit, and, at 35 schools, includes a visit to the salad bar that features mostly locally grown produce. All bread served in the school meal program is whole grain, brown rice and whole wheat pasta are frequently served, and all food is 100% trans fat free.

    However, some teachers, believing that students need “more choices” (or sometimes as a small profit generating business to help cover their own classroom expenses) sell Cup O’ Noodles or other ramen style products out of their classrooms at lunchtime.  While these entrepreneurs may feel they are providing a much needed service for their students, what they are really selling is a Cup O’Sodium – for example, the Beef flavor of Nissin brand Cup O’ Noodles contains 1110mg sodium, 46% of the daily value, while the Spicy Chicken flavor contains 1340 mg of sodium, 56% of the daily value. These are not the kind of “choices” our students need.

  3. Food Fundraising

    When people think of school fundraising, the first thing that usually comes to mind is “bake sale.” For decades, schools have sold cookies, brownies, and cupcakes to help pay for everything from new books for the school library to the class fieldtrip to the zoo. Even parents who are careful about limiting sweets at home sometimes forget about good nutrition when it comes to school bake sales. After all, it’s for a good cause!

    What most people don’t stop to think about is the fact that selling food, especially home baked treats, is one of the most inefficient ways of raising money. That batch of 2 dozen chocolate chip cookies, even sold for a hefty 25 cents per cookie, is only going to bring in $6, but the chocolate chips alone cost $2.50 on sale, the butter costs another $3, and then there are the nuts….Even assuming you already have the eggs, flour, two kinds of sugar, vanilla, and everything else in the house, and figuring nothing for the value of your time to shop for ingredients you don’t already have, bake, clean up, and get the cookies to school, you are still spending more than $6 to help the school raise $6. And many of us don’t feel that our time is without cost; working parents with children never have enough time in their day, so every hour spent helping with a school bake sale definitely comes at a cost. Then there is the value of the time spent by the volunteers who run the bake sale, who set up and sell and clean up after. And the end result is that everyone’s kids end up eating a lot of baked goods they really don’t need and which aren’t especially good for them. Wouldn’t it make more sense all around to skip the shopping, baking, selling, and eating, and just donate the $6 to the school?

  4. Classroom Parties

    Another sacred tradition at many schools is the Class Party. Whether the occasion is Halloween, Thanksgiving, winter holidays, Valentine’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, or the birthday of every child in the class, there is never a shortage of parties in most classrooms. Even schools which don’t fundraise through food sales often are reluctant to tell parents not to send cupcakes to school for their child’s birthday. Some schools don’t ever want to tell a parent that anything they send is inappropriate, with the result that parents provide candy, soda, potato chips, cookies, cake, and every imaginable kind of junk food not just for their child’s birthday, but for the many, many occasions that take place every school year.

    In San Francisco, the Wellness Policy recommends that class birthday parties be limited to one per month, for all of the birthday children in that month. Allowable drinks are limited to water, milk, and 100% fruit juice; soda, candy and chips are prohibited. Parents and caregivers are encouraged to send fruits and vegetables for snacks, and alternatives to traditional birthday cupcakes, including apple, banana, zucchini or carrot muffins, are recommended. Feedback from parents and teachers has been overwhelmingly positive; students still enjoy their class parties just as much with healthy food being served.

  5. Modeling Good or Bad Choices

    One of the most important roles for adults in implementing a school Wellness Policy is modeling good choices for students. Unfortunately, some teachers use food as a reward, handing out candy or other sugary treats to students who complete assignments or participate well in class. Adults in schools may refuse to abide by rules which they feel are only designed to improve student health, reserving for themselves the “right” to have easy access to soda machines even when it is denied to students. Teachers may have soft drink machines in their lounge. Parents often serve sodas, chips, cookies, and other unhealthy snacks at their own PTA or parent association meetings, back to school nights, and open houses, as well as at parties for teachers and staff. Children learn most of their behavior from adults, so it is important that the adults in schools model making appropriate and healthy food choices. Homework passes work well as classroom rewards, and fruit makes a much better snack choice than chips or cookies.

In the end, a school Wellness Policy is only a bunch of words on a page. The best intentioned policy in the world is not going to be able to improve the school food environment without the support of the adults in the school.

Read more about improving school food, and see the SFUSD’s Wellness Policy, at www.sfusdfood.org

Dana Woldow has served as co-chair of the SFUSD Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee since autumn 2003. She is the parent of one SFUSD student and two SFUSD graduates.