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SETH Gears Up to Examine Healthy Schools Act Impact

Sandra Schlicker, director of Wellness and Nutrition Services, Office of the State Superintendent of Education, discusses the provisions of the D.C. Healthy Schools Act, January 19. (Photo: Jeff Watts)

Are Washington kids getting trimmer and fitter since the passage of the D.C. Healthy Schools Act in May 2010?

Researchers from AU’s School of Education, Teaching and Health (SETH) are looking for the answers by building a community-based team to examine the efficacy of the legislation, which aims to improve the health, wellness, and nutrition of the 75,000 students under D.C. Public Schools’ (DCPS) care.

Led by Stacey Snelling, professor of nutrition and health promotion, and SETH dean Sarah Irvine Belson, the AU team welcomed 60 academics and practitioners to campus, January 19, to formulate research questions for the study. Ward 3 council member Mary Cheh, who drafted the act, kicked off the workshop. “The schools can’t do it all, but kids spend a lot of time in school. And when they’re in our custody, we’re responsible for them . . . in math, science, physical education, and nutrition,” she said.

According to Cheh, more than 55 percent of District residents are overweight or obese — including nearly half of all children. Washington also has one the highest rates of childhood asthma in the country.

The D.C. Healthy Schools Act aims to:

  • improve nutrition by requiring healthier options in the cafeteria, in school stores, and in vending machines
  • expand access to school meals by providing free breakfast for all students and making lunch free for students who used to pay a reduced price
  • encourage farm-to-school programs to help students learn about and enjoy fresh, locally-grown foods
  • provide more physical activity opportunities to get students moving and foster lifelong healthy habits
  • develop health education to teach kids about nutrition, safety, and personal health
  • create greener schools by encouraging school gardens, recycling programs, and energy-saving initiatives

While they’re seeking funding for their work, the AU team is crafting research questions to tease out the act’s impact on students. There’s anecdotal evidence that supports the act’s efficacy, but the group is particularly interested in whether kids are losing weight and adopting healthier lifestyles — and if that’s improving their academic performance. They also want to examine food consumption patterns in school cafeterias.

“DCPS has set us up nicely to serve good meals, but what are students throwing out?” said Snelling.

Snelling has worked with Ward 7’s Kelly Miller Middle School since 2009 as part of Community Voices for Health, helping students and teachers integrate health and nutrition lessons into the curriculum, and helping parents master healthy cooking and smart shopping. In October, Kelly Miller was the only middle school in D.C. to receive the Healthier U.S. School Challenge silver award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In describing her collaboration with Kelly Miller to an audience of representatives from DCPS, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, D.C. Central Kitchen, the Farm to School Network, Kaiser Permanente, and the American Heart Association, Snelling noted that "SETH's history of working with DCPS and the D.C. community to advance education and healthy," is a partnership that maximizes AU's location in the nation's capital.