Study says Howard's health and wellness policy needs work

The revisions to the health and wellness policy for Howard County schools are good, but they could be better if the system wants to be word-class in all aspects, according to a study released last month by a local nonprofit dedicated to health in Howard County.

"We have a chance to develop a world-class wellness policy," Horizon Foundation President and CEO Nikki Highsmith Vernick said. "We have work to do."

The study was conducted by the Yale University Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity on behalf of the foundation, and concludes the proposal falls short of creating a world-class health policy to go with a world-class school system.

The proposed policy includes several new measures to create a healthier environment for students, which Highsmith Vernick called "notable improvements." But best practice standards from the Institute of Medicine and the U.S. Department of Agriculture still are lacking when it comes to food sold in vending machines and providing adequate recess time for elementary and middle school students.

"If current recommendations are adopted, Howard County's wellness policy will rank as average against other jurisdictions across the country," said Deputy Director of the Rudd Center Marlene Schwartz.

The new proposed policy encourages staff to incorporate physical activity into classroom instruction and prohibits physical activity, like recess, from being taken away as punishment. It requires that breakfast be offered to every student at every school, which is not the current practice, and that bus times be altered to accommodate the time it would take breakfast to be served.

Finally, the new policy establishes nutritional guidelines, which would provide guidance on all food and beverages offered to students through the system's food and nutrition service.

Those guidelines, however, have not yet been set, and would not be until the system hires a dietitian — a position provided for in the proposed fiscal 2014 operating budget. That's a major concern of committee members, the Horizon Foundation and several Board of Education members.

"I have difficulty approving a policy without those guidelines in place," said board member Janet Siddiqui, the medical director for pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins Odenton facility. "Another concern is that those guidelines, at this point, would not come back to the board, but to the superintendent, without board approval."

The issues highlighted by the Horizon Foundation's report were actually the cause of heated discussion during committee meetings, said Katrina Burton, the school system's director of business and finance and co-chair of the committee. The suggestions are "not moving forward at this time either due to fiscal constraints, or the school system's desire to have a balance between these priorities among other priorities, including academic instructional programs," she said.

But if the school system wants to improve health for its students, said Glenn Schneider, chief program officer of the Horizon Foundation and committee member, it will.

"Feasibility has a lot to do with priority-setting," he said. "If you say something is a priority, it's feasible. … We can do a whole lot better than what we currently have. It doesn't take a whole lot overall to have a much better wellness policy. We can get there."

When the policy revisions were presented to the Board of Education at its March 12 meeting, members echoed the foundation's concerns.

"I think them saying something, means something," Siddiqui said, citing the fact that nearly a third of the policy committee's members — many with health backgrounds — issued a statement that the proposal fell short.

The process isn't over. A public hearing on the policy is scheduled for April 11, and the board is set to vote on the changes May 9. If approved, the new policy would take effect July 1. Board members suggested scheduling a work session to hammer out details of the policy.

"I don't think we should slow down approval, but we need to spend more time in the review process," said Board Vice-Chairman Brian Meshkin. "I don't want to see us limit students' potential to receive these benefits (starting next school year)."

At the March 12 meeting, Superintendent Renee Foose asked the board and the public to remember that the schools only have students under their direct care for 6 1/2 hours a day — time that already is packed trying to provide balanced academics.

"Ensuring the health of students is a community-wide effort," she said. "While the policy is a giant step in the right direction, our work doesn't end here. We have to work with our community partners to make sure our goals are met before school, after school and year-round."

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