Howard schools' wellness policy gets top grades

After falling short of a top ranking last year, a wellness policy created by the Howard County Board of Education has made high marks in 2014, school and health officials announced Wednesday. 

The policy, which covers a broad spectrum of health and wellness areas, including nutritional education, school meals, vending machine offerings and physical activity time, was awarded an overall grade of "A" and earned a "B" for effectiveness of enforcement. The assessment was made by Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, which ranks school wellness policies nationwide. 

The policy scored highest for its school meal plans and programs, its vending machine offerings and its evaluation measures, which all earned a perfect 100 percent overall. It still has some work to do on physical education and activity, which earned an 86 on the comprehensive score and 57 for enforcement. 

Marlene Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center, called the wellness policy "one of the very best that I've ever seen.

"The nutrition sections in particular will serve as a model for other districts around the country," she said in a statement.

Howard's overall grade of 95 percent was nearly twice as high as the national average, which at 48 percent would be a failing score. 

Howard County Public Schools Superintendent Renee Foose said nutrition and wellness was the next frontier for educators hoping to improve student achievement. 

Foose said research has confirmed a link between health and academic performance. "Students with healthy behaviors participate more fully in class," she said. 

The wellness policy was assessed at the request of the Horizon Foundation, a local public health nonprofit that worked with the school system to improve the policy's tenets. 

"School is where kids spend the majority of their time, away from their parents' watchful eyes and guidance," said Horizon Foundation President and CEO Nicolette Highsmith Vernick. "By teaching children the benefits of making smarter nutritional choices when it's their own responsibility to do so, we're instilling behaviors that will help them lead longer, healthier and happier lives."  

Healthy Howard, another public health organization, also worked on the policy, which the group's executive director, Christine Hall, said would help make "healthy choices a default for students as well as their families." 

The wellness policy will be implemented during the 2014-15 school year. 

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