In an 18-page white paper to colleagues, D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) yesterday outlined a sweeping legislative vision for combating childhood obesity and poverty-related hunger in the city through an expansion of free school meals, upgraded nutritional requirements, greater access to locally-grown fruits and vegetables and increased physical activity.
Among the issues Cheh said her recently introduced “Healthy Schools” legislation is designed to address:
*Eighteen percent of District high school students are obese and 35 percent are overweight, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
*Eighty-one percent of D.C. high schoolers do not eat the recommended five daily servings of fruits and vegetables
* Eighty-five percent of female teenagers to not consume enough calcium.
* Seventy percent of high school students in the District fail to meet the CDC’s recommended level of physical activity.
* Thirty-two percent of children in the District live in poverty, 19.2 percent in extreme poverty. More than half do not have a personal doctor and 34 percent of children have not had a preventive medical visit and dental visit in the past year.
* One in six children in the District has asthma, one of the highest rates in the country.
Over the past six days, I have been writing about the details of the “Healthy Schools” bill (here, here, here, here, here and here), introduced jointly by Cheh and Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D). The paper released yesterday by Cheh lays out the reasons for numerous policy upgrades designed to vault the District of Columbia into the front ranks of school districts embracing the modern food movement.
“Teaching students to live a healthy lifestyle and making school environments healthier,” Cheh tells colleagues, “can have a major, lifelong impact on the wellbeing of our youngest generation.”
About 40,000 children attend schools in the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) system, while another 20,000 attend charter schools. The DCPS food provider, Chartwells, serves meals to about 30,000 children each day. Charter schools hire their own food providers, often small caterers, individually.
The bill would make breakfast free to all public school students in the District. The D.C. Public School System already provides universal free breakfast. The new policy would extend free breakfasts to all charter school students. The bill also would broaden the number of students eligible for free lunch. Currently, students whose family incomes are within 131 percent and 185 percent of the federal poverty level qualify for a “reduced-price” lunch and pay about 20 cents per meal. The school system has eliminated the co-payment in more than 70 schools, and Cheh’s bill would expand the program to all schools, including charter schools, in an effort to increase the number of children who eat lunch.
According to Cheh, 27 states have passed school nutrition policies while 21 states have enacted farm-to-school policies for incorporating locally grown produce in school meals. The District has done neither. The “Healthy Schools” bill would establish local nutritional standards exceeding federal requirements, and, over a four-year phase-in period, bring the District into line with standards recently developed by the Institute of Medicine for the U.S. Department of Ariculture.
The standards call for reduced consumption of salt and sugar and increased consumption of fruits and vegetables. Cheh’s bill requires that all eligible D.C schools participate in the federal government’s “Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.” The option is available to schools where at least 50 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, but only 23 of 88 eligible schools in the city currently participate, Cheh said.
The bill embraces policies adopted in 2006 by the city’s Board of Education to restrict the sale of sugary beverages and manage the portion sizes of junk food. According to Cheh, some 15 percent of D.C. public schools–and an unknown number of charter schools–do not follow the policies. The legislation not only makes those policies law, but sets out fines of $500 per day for schools that fail to comply.
Cheh argues that children will be more likely to eat more fruits and vegetables if these are sourced from local farmers practicing “sustainable” agriculture. Local produce tastes better, Cheh says, and purchasing it boosts the local economy and helps the environment. The bill includes a five-cent bonus for school meals that include local produce, as well as grants–when funds are appropriated–to assist local groups in building infrastructure for distributing and storing local farm products.
“According to community experts,” Cheh writes, “this nickel incentive is large enough to significantly increase the amount of fresh, local foods and vegetables served in the schools.”
According to Cheh, DCPS is engaged in a pilot recycling program that includes 40 schools. The “Healthy Schools” bill requires that schools recycle paper, bottles, cans and cardboard, including food services. However, because system-wide recycling would need additional funding, it would only take effect when funds “become available.”
“Currently, school meals create enormous amounts of waste,” Cheh says. Her bill would, within four years, ban Stryrofoam trays, tens of thousands of which go into school trash cans every day. The bill would also require the schools to compost food waste. According to Cheh, DCPS and its food provider, Chartwells, “would like to compost, but lack the funds and infrastructure to do so.” The bill would establish a pilot composting program, but–again–only when funds are appropriated.
“Healthy Schools” would also establish “wellness centers” in all of the city’s high schools. Currently, the District operates a handful of such centers–Woodson, Anacasita and Spingarn–where “comprehensive medical services” are managed by Children’s Hospital with staff from the medical residency program at Georgetown Univeristy. The bill calls for developing a plan by 2015 to expand the program.
Federal law requires school districts to develop “wellness” policies, but contains no requirement for updating them. Cheh’s bill would require that wellness policies for D.C. schools be updated every three years, and that they address “environmental sustainability and farm-to-school intitives” as well.
According to Cheh, the biggest complaint about wellness policies is that they are not widely known or promoted. A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that only 45 percent of D.C. schools had copes of their wellness policies. The “Healthy Schools” legislation would require schools to post the policies on their websites, and share them with food service providers, PTA’s and anyone who asks for them in school offices.