Schools Encounter Success with Policy-Based Approach to Student Health
> 4/16/2008 1:24:36 PM

As we wrote in our discussion of school candy bans, a fruitful assault on obesity at the school level will require a multi-pronged approach to the issue. Now, new data from a trial run of a policy-based approach to reducing overweight and obesity in K-8th graders in Philadelphia has illustrated that such an approach can indeed be successful— to a degree. The Comprehensive School Nutrition Policy Initiative (SNPI), developed by the Philadelphia non-profit organization The Food Trust, was instituted in 5 randomly selected Philadelphia area schools for two years. Researchers then took extensive measurements of the health behaviors of students at intervention based schools who participated in SNPI as well as at 5 comparable control schools. All the participating schools had at least 50% of students participating in free or reduced lunch programs.

As outlined on The Food Trust's page, the SNPI focuses on five specific areas to improve student health. The in-school components include nutrition requirements, which ensure no unhealthy options are sold in the school; nutrition education that corresponds with the options available to students; and staff education that helps teachers incorporate the SNPI's goals into their classrooms. The other components of the program are parent and community involvement, which aims to make sure that students are presented with a united front, and program evaluation, which ensures that the SNPI is constantly examining its progress and improving when necessary.

After two years, researchers found that the intervention program was effective at reducing the number of new cases of children in the overweight category of the study. The SNPI program also succeeded in reducing the overall prevalence of overweight in intervention schools, and that black students were more positively affected by the intervention with regards to overweight prevalence then were students overall. These positive gains though were tempered by failure at the extremes. The intervention did little to change the rates of obesity, defined as at or above 95th percentile in BMI, in the school populations. In their write-up, the researchers speculate that more targeted interventions may be needed to reach these most at-risk populations.

On the whole, this two year effort showed that the concept of a multi-pronged approach to student nutrition can be successful, even if it doesn't help every student equally. Researchers were encouraged that students' attitudes about body image didn't deteriorate during the study, as some have worried could happen with this type of program. In terms of improvements going forward, the team behind this study felt that beefing up the community aspect of the program could be very advantageous. Unfortunately, if kids can get unhealthy foods only blocks away from school, they'll wait till classes let out to get their sugar fixes.

The nutritional requirements that the SNPI calls for are stringent, but with support for these changes in the classrooms as well as at home, children can and will be healthier. This study focused on a specific population within the Philadelphia public school system, so it may not be possible to translate this exact program for success in other areas. Educators, doctors, and academics in other areas should start collaborating on programs that build on this early success. The benefits for students' futures will be invaluable.

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