Parents' Views on School Wellness Practices

A new national survey of parents of school-aged children found a significant gap between what parents believe is happening and what is actually happening in terms of nutrition and physical activity in America's schools.

The survey, conducted by Action for Healthy Kids, found that nearly two- thirds of parents support restricting access to high calorie, low nutrient snack foods, and half of the parents surveyed feel their child's school is doing an "excellent" to "good" job in this area.

The reality is quite different, according to a new study released last week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In a survey of 27 states, the CDC found that 60-95% (median 90%) percent of schools in those states allow students to purchase snack foods or beverages from vending machines or at the school store, canteen, or snack bar. Among these schools, less nutritious foods and beverages made up the majority of those sales.

The survey, "Parents' Views on School Wellness Practices," will be released here Tuesday at the Action for Healthy Kids' "Healthy Schools Summit 2005" at the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel.

William Potts-Datema, chairman of Action for Healthy Kids, said the survey highlights the need for broad efforts that both encourage and support parental involvement as school districts work to develop the local school wellness policies mandated by recent federal law.

"Parents have their priorities straight when it comes to a strong nutrition and physical activity focus in our schools," said Potts-Datema, who is also Director of Partnerships for Children's Health at the Harvard School for Public Health. "But we must do a better job of informing them of the current situation and find ways to give them voices as advocates for healthier environments within our schools."

Another illustration of a "disconnect" between parents' priorities and perceptions and what actually happens at school occurs in the area of physical activity. Seventy-seven percent of parents support requiring daily physical education for all children, and 62% rate their child's school as "excellent" or "good" on "making daily physical education available for all students." However, in reality only 5.8 to 8.0% of schools nationally (depending on grade level) provide students with daily physical education.

Despite parents' strong support for healthy options at school, the vast majority of parents (83%) are unaware of the school wellness policy mandate in the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004. The legislation requires that all school districts participating in the National School Lunch Program implement local wellness policies before the 2006 school year. The Act specifies that parents, among other key school stakeholders, be involved from the beginning in designing these district policies.

"The local wellness policy mandate is one of the most positive steps forward for child nutrition and physical activity that we've seen in decades," said Alicia Moag-Stahlberg, MS, RD, Executive Director, Action for Healthy Kids. "In order to maximize this opportunity we must get the word out now to parents and other interested parties who can help schools put the best wellness practices in place."

Pursuant, Inc. and Knowledge Networks, in collaboration with Action for Healthy Kids, conducted the parents' survey in July 2005 and involved a nationally representative sample of parents (n= 638) of non-home schooled children in grades K-12.

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