Urbana schools wellness policy tough on sweets

URBANA – The "spoonful of sugar" solution could soon be a thing of the past in Urbana schools.

On Tuesday, a wellness committee will present its policy for student wellness to the Urbana school board in a study session at 7:30 p.m. at 205 N. Race St., U – and it doesn't include feeding kids sweets as a reward.

"We hope that it helps them become healthy," said Jean Korder, who manages curriculum and instruction for the district. "Within the school day, we are doing our best to make sure there are healthy options and healthy opportunities for them."

To that end, the wellness committee – made up of parents, students, health care professionals and school employees – composed a policy to meet national guidelines for child nutrition and physical activity.

By law, the policy needs to be ready to enact by the start of the 2006-07 school year.

In meetings every two weeks since November, the committee hammered out guidelines for board approval, including the following:

– All students, from early childhood through senior year, shall receive nutrition education, including the skills necessary to identify and create a healthy diet.

– School meals should be consistent with federal dietary guidelines and should offer a variety of age-appropriate food and beverages. This includes vending machine, fundraiser and cafeteria a la carte offerings.

– School meals shall be served in clean, safe, pleasant settings with at least 10 minutes for breakfast and 20 minutes for lunch.

– Elementary students should receive at least 150 minutes of physical education every week. Middle and high school students should receive at least 225 minutes. Both should be offered daily by trained instructors.

– Teachers are encouraged to provide brief exercise or "stretch breaks" throughout the day. They should not offer food as a reward, or lack of food as a punishment. They are discouraged from withholding recess as a punishment.

– The school should develop community partnerships to provide other outlets for child activity. It should also provide active after-school and before-school activities.

– Staff should also be trained in wellness.

"The reason why we like to do teacher workshops is getting the teachers to eat well," said Robbie Berg, a parent of three former Urbana students who helps lead teacher workshops as director of the nonprofit Earth Partners. "Once (teachers) understand it, I think they provide that personal education to their students as well."

In addition to serving on the committee, Urbana High School students Mari Mermelstein and Erica Houk conducted a survey of more than 200 students about their nutrition knowledge and preferences.

Mermelstein found that though many students were aware of nutritional standards, they didn't apply them to themselves.

"Most students are kind of under the impression, 'Oh you know, I just eat for taste. ... When I get older I'll think about nutrition,'" she said.

Mermelstein said that while she thinks enacting the policy might not change students' nutritional habits, it will help "at least ... while they're at school to make healthier choices."

For the most part, the policy won't change current curriculum, nutrition or physical activity standards already in place in Urbana schools.

"There will be a few changes, but we're pretty much right on target," said Piper Harvey, the district's food service director, employed by Aramark.

Still, she feels the policy will be useful beyond as a law-fulfilling document.

"To anyone who comes after me, they can look back at that and say 'OK, this is what the district is wanting,'" Harvey said.

She also approves of removing the sweet stuff from classes.

"What (the policy is) trying to get away from is bringing candy treats," Harvey said. Instead, teachers and parents can look to other rewards available to children even with dietary restrictions because of diabetes or obesity.

"Maybe a pencil that says 'All-star Student,'" Harvey suggested. "This is going to include all children – everybody can get a pencil."

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