Starting a school wellness committee

08/09/2011
Fitness and Nutrition
Hannah Rowley, RD, LDN and Sarah Kohley, MS, RD

There’s a food revolution under way, and in many schools it is students who are leading the charge. Today’s young people are concerned about the environment, as well as their own health. They seek to eliminate bottled water and promote recycling throughout the campus. They want the food they eat to be wholesome and sustainably sourced. That’s not to say they don’t enjoy their junk food; they do – just not a steady diet of it. image

A great way to capture this burgeoning enthusiasm and channel it into productive reform is to start a wellness council, or a food committee. Students are more likely to adhere to policies that have been shaped by their peers. In addition, working on such a committee is a great learning experience for the participants.

At Montgomery Bell Academy, an all-boys’ school in Nashville, TV, replacing an extensive offering of sugar-laden beverages, like soda and sweetened fruit juices, with healthier beverage choices was a community-wide effort. Today the boys quench their thirst by drinking fruit-infused water, milk and slightly sweetened, house-brewed iced tea.

The positive transformation of Montgomery Bell Academy’s beverage program relied on student acceptance of the change, which was achieved through communication among the  students, the dining service provider and school leadership. The school’s food committee supported the move toward healthier drinks. Promotional signage and targeted nutrition education about the importance of hydration helped students see the value in the new offerings.

“It didn’t take a long time to get the program going. It’s a lot of fun,” says Steve Walsnovich, food service director for SAGE Dining Services, the school’s dining service provider. To keep the program fresh, Walsnovich continues to solicit feedback from students and experiments with new fruit combinations.

Schools that receive assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture must assemble a school wellness council, according to USDA mandates. The stated purpose of these committees is to create policies to address nutrition education, minimum nutrition standards, physical activity and the sale of food and beverages outside of school meals.

Mandates are routinely greeted with skepticism, because they do not always suit the individual needs of communities. Granting schools or districts the authority to create or reform health policies based on their needs sets a mandate like this apart. An increasing number of schools decide to form a wellness or food council to address community concerns, including schools that have not been mandated to create such a council.

The nutritional quality of school lunches is a hot-button issue these days. Now is the time to seize energy generated by the headlines to improve your school community’s health. But before you get going, review essential components to creating a council that develops policies with real results.

Selecting council members

Your committee must be composed of dedicated individuals who not only represent the diversity within your school community, but also possess the skill set to address issues your community faces.

Advertise in your school newspaper, post flyers around campus and make announcements at parent-teacher meetings announcing the creation — or revival — of your school wellness council. Craft a short summary about the council, including its purpose, why others should get involved and the details of the first meeting. Consider the timing of your first meeting to increase the likelihood of strong attendance. Consult the school calendar to make sure there are no scheduling conflicts.

Communication is a critical element of a successful council, as every action relies on it. The wellness council should consist of a variety of school representatives, including school administrators, the food service director, parents and students. These members should be willing to represent their respective groups and facilitate communication between the council and community it serves.

Cooperation is key.  At Cape Henry Collegiate School in Virginia Beach, VA, a student-driven effort to drastically reduce the amount of bottled water used on campus required a creative solution from the dining service provider. SAGE Dining Services recommended installing filtered water cooler systems on campus. Now, not only does the school community have free access to clean drinking water, the change is saving the school about $20,000 a year.

“This has been wonderful for our school,” said Julie Scherrer, associate head of school at Cape Henry. “There is less trash, less waste, and we feel secure that the water we’re drinking is pure and fresh. We have seen an increase in student water consumption as well, which is great.”

Ideally, some members of the council should have knowledge or experience in food service, health, marketing, nutrition, public policy and school regulations. If no one on your council has experience with these areas, consider recruiting additional members who do. It will help you reach your goals faster, and add credibility to any policy recommendations the council makes.

At the first meeting, draft a list of duties that will be required to conduct business. These include calling the meeting to order, taking notes, handling money and media relations. Then create positions (president, secretary, etc.) for your council and assign these roles.

Create a mission statement

Declare the intentions of the wellness council. Pose thought-provoking questions (see below) to the group and ask for answers at the following meeting. Create an open dialogue that encourages members to share their answers, and develop a mission statement together. This statement should be one paragraph in length and encompass the main objectives of the council. Use this mission statement as a driving force and support for decisions made.

This also would be a good time to create council bylaws or rules, if desired. This might be important with larger councils, to ensure a cohesive and productive group. Make copies of the final version, and have each member sign the document. Include the mission statement on this document so that each member is pledging to support the council’s objectives.

Questions to consider when developing a mission statement

  • What are some reasons you joined the school wellness council?
  • What are you hoping to achieve as a member? As a council?
  • Why is it important to have a school wellness council?
  • If you could pick one thing to change about school lunch, what would it be? Why?

Make a “wish list” and prioritize

Keep it simple. Don’t take on too many issues and risk losing momentum. There is no harm in creating a comprehensive wish list of issues. But because each policy change requires an evaluation process and sufficient time to implement changes, starting with too many objectives is not feasible, and a sure way to lose focus.

Prioritize the complete wish list. Consider your committee’s mission, the energy and skill set of your council members, and which goals are likely to yield significant impact and measurable outcomes. Then select several items from your list, while creating a long-term plan for the remaining goals. Fulfilling the goals set forth is essential for continued investment of members’ time.

Act and react

When policies are in place, you can assign responsibilities, measure progress and allow for modifications. The translation of a policy to intended results is not always seamless.  Allocating time to redefine the policy or update action steps is prudent.

Influential policy is the product of innovation supported by committed individuals. This is why administrators, teachers, staff, parents and students, in both public and private schools, find value in assembling wellness committees to tackle issues like school lunch reform.

Reforming food offerings at school is a great starting point for any wellness committee. However, our children’s health and wellness are influenced by other factors. Once the council has established a track record, consider moving beyond food, and look at nutrition education and physical activity as well.

Additional Resources

Resources for School Administrators

Resources for Food Service Directors

  • USDA’s National School Lunch Program: http://usda.gov/cnd/lunch/
  • USDA’s Healthy Meals Resource System: healthymeals.nal.usda.gov. Select “School Food Service” from left drop-down menu to access menu planning, food safety and great recipe ideas.

Resources for Parents & Teachers

  • Eat Smart. Play Hard. Healthy Lifestyle: USDA website for parents encourages healthy behaviors at home.
  • Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion: http://usda.gov. Provides a variety of tools and resources for understanding food and nutrition.

Resources for Students

Hannah Rowley, RD, LDN, is Chief Dietitian for SAGE Dining Services, the nation’s leading provider of campus dining services for independent schools. She can be reached at [email protected].Sarah Kohley, MS, RD, is a Registered Dietitian for SAGE Dining Services. She can be reached at [email protected].
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