Howard school board approves wellness policy

The Howard County Board of Education Thursday unanimously approved a health and wellness policy that's been more than a year in the making.

Frank Eastham, the Howard County Public School System’s executive director of school improvement and administration, used an old adage when making the final presentation, that “if you want to go far, you have to go slow, and this has taken a long time.”

The revised policy first went before the board last spring, but was widely criticized for not doing enough to support the health and well-being of students and staff. The board moved to implement a further revised policy in stages, beginning at the start of this school year when breakfast was made available to all students and teachers worked to incorporate more physical activity into their lessons, among other measures.

The school system also adopted Institute of Medicine standards for food offered in cafeterias, vending machines and a la carte items — standards that some residents and board members said still didn’t go far enough, but would do for now.

“I think you’ve been wise in slowing down the process to create a policy that had the full support of the community,” Eastham said.

The delayed vote didn't come without more delays, however. Typically, a vote — which comes after a report, public hearing and sometimes a work session — takes just minutes, but board members spent the better part of an hour discussing possible changes to the policy.

Janet Siddiqui had numerous requests to alter the policy, like establishing an advisory committee, banning the sale of flavored milk, and either eliminating the marketing of unhealthy foods or equally promoting healthier options in cafeterias. Nearly all of her suggestions were ones put forth by people testifying at a public hearing on the policy last month.

Many of her suggestions were left out of the policy, but Eastham said they could possibly be included in implementation procedures before the policy takes effect July 1. The board also decided to include wording that allowed for recess every day in middle school — regardless of how long — as they had decided with elementary schools.

Nikki Highsmith Vernick, president and CEO of local health nonprofit Horizon Foundation, which had issued a report critical of the initial revisions a year ago, was present at the vote and lauded the board’s decision, and offered her congratulations.

“This vote tonight was a vote for children’s wellness, and healthy families and healthy kids for generations to come,” she said.

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