We all want our children to be healthy — and to achieve that, children must be surrounded by a healthy environment. Schools play a huge role in this, particularly in terms of offering students nutritious food options and opportunities to be active. But not long ago, Howard County was behind on these goals. In fact, an assessment by the University of Connecticut Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health less than 10 years ago placed Howard County’s school wellness policy in the bottom third of similar policies around the country.
Things needed to change. We needed a community-wide commitment to healthier schools. We needed to start building a culture of good health in Howard County (”Health is not the same for everyone in Howard County,” March 17, 2020). And thanks to the hard work of our school system, elected leaders and community members, that’s exactly what we did.
There has been incredible improvement in recent years to promote a healthier environment in our schools. Meals and vending machine options became more nutritious based on U.S. Department of Agriculture standards; children began receiving better health and nutrition education; and we recruited more qualified teachers to teach physical education. All these changes are reflected in the most recent version of Policy 9090, the wellness policy that governs food and physical activity in the school system, thanks to a vote last month by the Howard County Board of Education. Now, the Rudd Center grades that policy in the top 10% of policies for school wellness in the United States — a remarkable achievement, given where we started.
Thank you to the Board of Education, Superintendent Michael Martirano and his staff and all the community advocates who have worked to improve this policy over the years. Our schools, principals, teachers, parents and students have also worked together to create and sustain a healthier school environment that helps make our schools some of the most desirable in the nation.
Much work remains to make sure that all our kids have opportunities to be healthy, particularly after the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic that has caused enormous stress, anxiety and disruption for students. The improvements to Policy 9090 also must be implemented consistently across the school system so we can ensure children see the real benefits. While this will take continued diligence, we are well on our way to making Howard County one of the best and healthiest places in the country for kids to thrive.
Nikki Highsmith-Vernick, Columbia
The writer is president and CEO of The Horizon Foundation.
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