April 2, 2010

DC Healthy Schools Act

Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl

Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl

Research Assistant

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

On Friday, March 26th  the DC Council listened to testimony from various concerned citizens and experts from the community on the DC Healthy Schools Act.  This bill represents a wonderful first step in improving the health of DC’s children and the role that schools play in the sustainability of our communities.   While the bill’s main focus is on nutrition and physical activity, the sustainability language is compelling.  See Washington Post article:

Councilman Catania made his opening statement, championing the advancement that DC has made in the health of children and putting his support squarely behind this bill designed improve the situation in DC’s schools even more.  He started by saying that in the last 5 years, DC had cut the number of uninsured children in half and that the present number of uninsured children is one of the lowest in the nation.  Additionally, the number of school with nurses has increased from 37% to 99% of DC public schools having full time nurses on campus.  As a former teacher in an urban school who never saw a nurse in my school, I can say that this is a major accomplishment.  He also laid out the bare numbers that DC must hurdle with regards to childhood obesity.  According to Catania, 43% of students are overweight and 26% are obese in the district.  

While addressing obesity is not a simple matter, this bill lays the foundation for movement in a positive direction with regards to those public health concerns.  I want to give you a look at some of the intricacies in the bill that were most exciting to me.

The major aspects of the Bill that I wanted to report on were as follows:

1.    If an elementary school has 40% of it’s students on free and reduced lunch, students will have breakfast in the classroom.

What a wonderful concept to push forward.  We know that if students aren’t fed well, it is that much harder for them to learn.  With this policy in place a great opportunity is generated for teachers to begin discussing issues of nutrition and its importance while the students are eating breakfast.  When else do we have food and students and teachers in such an atmosphere?

2.    The District of Columbia Public Schools shall establish a central facility in the District to prepare, process, and store healthy and nutritious meals for schools and non-profit organizations.

Similar to the movement in Baltimore, Washington D.C. has now proposed a central kitchen able to prepare healthy nutritious meals for their schools.  With many schools lacking the ability to prepare fresh food on-site, students are left with micro-waved processed meals and less fresh options.  A central kitchen could change that.  In addition the site would be used as job-training for teens.  School food is not only a central focus of this bill, but a moral issue on many levels.  If we are attempting to close the achievement gap, we have to close all the gaps that go along with it.  That gap includes the school food gab, where high percentages of low-income students get two sometimes three meals a day from the schools.  If those meals aren’t nutritious and fresh, are we really creating a conducive environment where we can assess our students equally?

3.    Public schools and public charter schools shall serve locally-grown, locally-processed, and unprocessed foods from growers engaged in sustainable agriculture practices whenever possible.  Preference shall be given to fresh foods grown or processed in Maryland or Virginia.
(b) The Office of the State Superintendent of Education shall provide an additional 5 cents per lunch meal reimbursement when at least one serving of fruits and vegetables in a lunch meal is locally-grown and unprocessed.  It is strongly encouraged that these foods served in public schools and public charter schools are from growers engaged in sustainable agriculture practices.
In a statement that furthers the movement of our present food system from industrial processed foods to more local, sustainable and fresh foods, the DC public schools will try and source local ingredients “whenever possible.”  While not a binding pledge with percentages attached, this language is important in setting the foundation for further work with farm to school in our nation’s capital.  “Sustainability” language will have to be worked out, but the idea that incentives and pledges are being made for local, sustainable produce is a great move forward for public schools and it’s exciting to see the nation’s capital getting out in front on this issue.

Physical Education: It shall be the goal of the District of Columbia for children to engage in physical activity for 60 minutes each day.
(b) Public schools and charter schools shall promote the goal of 60 minutes of physical activity per day and shall seek to maximize their students’ physical activity.
(c) The targets for physical education in the District of Columbia are as follows:      For students in kindergarten through grade 5:
(A) School year 2010 to 2011: 30 minutes per week;
(B) School year 2011 to 2012: 60 minutes per week;
(C) School year 2012 to 2013: 90 minutes per week;
(D) School year 2013 to 2014: 120 minutes per week; and
(E) School year 2014 to 2015: 150 minutes per week.
(2) For students in grades 6 through 8:
(A) School year 2010 to 2011: 45 minutes per week;
(B) School year 2011 to 2012: 90 minutes per week;
(C) School year 2012 to 2013: 135 minutes per week;
(D) School year 2013 to 2014: 180 minutes per week; and
(E) School year 2014 to 2015: 225 minutes per week.

What I particularly love about this part of the act is the way that physical education is phased in over time.  We know that the district has a childhood obesity problem, but we also have to be realistic about how quickly our schools are going to be able to change.  Councilwoman Cheh who co-introduced the bill with Councilman Gray said that if passed plans are to implement the physical activity components by the start of the next school year in 2010.  By 2015, all elementary school students will be getting 30 min of physical activity everyday and middle school students will be getting 45 minutes per day.  It is nice to see that even in this era of high stakes testing, many among us are realizing the importance of physical health, including food and nutrition on our children’s lives.

From a former teacher’s perspective, I’d like to address two main issues.  The first is how are we going to pay for all of these wonderful changes and the second is how are we going to hold schools accountable for the changes.  I have worked in districts where every school had to have a “wellness policy” but in reality it was a bureaucratic hoop that administrators had to jump through and many times they simply copied wellness policies from other schools, never internalizing nor planning to address those wellness policies.  Urban administrators do have much to deal with and with the way that we have been starving our public schools of funding, it’s hard to blame them for their lack of focus on “wellness.”  Accountability must be phased in quickly in DC to avoid these wonderful advancements becoming ineffective.  I applaud the DC council for proposing to take these steps towards improving student health in the district.

At the present time there is no timeline set for when the bill will be voted on, but you can follow the progress on DC Farm to School Network’s website.

For a full viewing of the bill to date. click here

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