Researchers Examine Pennsylvania’s Role in Reducing Child Obesity

April 19, 2010

Penn State researchers recently concluded an analysis of how Pennsylvania’s school districts responded to federal legislation aimed at reducing child obesity rates. The legislation, passed in 2004, introduced wellness policy requirements  into schools and is expected to be reauthorized by Congress in 2010. The researchers’ findings, published in the March 2010 issue of Health Affairs, are the first report of how school districts have implemented their wellness policies and have implications on the policy’s effectiveness and what can be improved in the future.

The nationwide Child Nutrition and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Reauthorization Act of 2004 required that all local education agencies—public, private, charter, residential, and vocational-technical schools—develop wellness policies to address childhood obesity by the start of the 2006–07 school year. Each school district was charged with creating at least one goal for improving wellness in each of several categories laid out in the legislation: nutrition education, physical activity, availability of nutrition guidelines to students, and other school-based activities to address student wellness.

Pennsylvania responded with a multifaceted approach that included mandatory training sessions for all school food service directors and financial incentives to schools that adopted state-created nutrient standards for à la carte food items offered at school.

In addition, “Pennsylvania was one of the few states to collect and analyze plans to ensure that they addressed childhood obesity,” says Elaine McDonnell, coordinator of Project PA and one of the authors on the paper. “If school districts sent goals that did not meet state standards, the schools had to rework those plans.”

The researchers surveyed superintendents from 499 of Pennsylvania’s school districts. Nearly all of these schools complied and worked with the state to formulate plans that would target obesity in some way.

Pennsylvania’s response showed success in other ways, too. Nearly 75 percent of respondents reported improvements in food available through vending machines and in à la carte offerings—most often chips, cookies, and other snack food. Also, more than half of the school districts reported that nutrition education at their schools had improved as a result of the Child Nutrition Program legislation.

“Prior to the legislation, many people saw à la carte food as a factor contributing to obesity rates because it is not regulated like the National School Lunch Program is,” says Dr. Claudia Probart, associate professor of nutritional science and first author on the paper. The National School Lunch Program, coordinated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day.

Physical activity opportunities, however, were found to be less likely to be implemented, even though that component area was a major focus of the legislation. Only 13 percent of schools reported that children had increased opportunities for physical activity outside of physical education classes.

The researchers hypothesized that this may be due to the fact that, in most schools, food service directors (FSD) had been placed in charge of new policies for the legislation. FSDs typically only manage the National School Lunch Program in their schools, so policies that dealt with physical activity or nutrition curriculums were out of the FSD’s area of authority.

Other weak points the researchers found were related to measurement of the effectiveness of the wellness policies and limited consequences for not meeting stated goals.  Districts appear to need additional assistance in this area, as only 24 percent reported having written plans for assessing their implementation activities.

This research was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the researchers will continue their investigation into Pennsylvania’s response to the Child Nutrition Program legislation using additional funds. Pennsylvania was one of three states (in addition to Iowa and California) to receive funds from USDA for a qualitative analysis on how plans were implemented. Probart and McDonnell are currently spearheading this effort, and they are also helping schools measure implementation and policy effectiveness through additional  funds received from USDA and Pennsylvania’s departments of education and health.

Other authors on the paper include Lamis Jomaa, Nutrition doctoral candidate, Penn State, and Vonda Fekete, state director of Child Nutrition Programs, Pennsylvania Department of Education.

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Editors: Elaine McDonnell can be contacted at etm101@psu.edu and Claudia Probart can be contacted at ckp1@psu.edu. For additional information, please contact the College of Health and Human Development Office of College Relations at 814-865-3831 or healthhd@psu.edu.