2015 Massachusetts School Wellness Policy Review

Dates: 2015

State: Massachusetts

Client(s): Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

Service: Applied Research & Evaluation

Technical Expertise: Healthy Communities

Changes to our communities, neighborhoods, and schools have made it difficult for children to eat a healthy diet and to be physically active. Many youth and their families do not have access to affordable healthy food or safe places to walk, bike, and play. Today, the childhood obesity epidemic and its significant health and social consequences demand attention.

Youth spend a significant part of their day in school—on average over six hours each day. Schools play an especially important role in promoting the health and safety of young people. They provide a fundamental setting for not only education on the importance of lifelong health behaviors, but also environments and opportunities for youth to consume nutritious meals, snacks, and beverages and to engage in regular physical activity. Wellness policies are integral to the structure and function of what happens in schools. Rather than focusing on the behavior of one student at a time, policies can impact a school's physical and social environment and its ability to encourage healthy behaviors among all students and school staff. Strong policies written in a specific and directive manner can be an effective way to implement and maintain guidelines about a healthy school environment. On the contrary, policy statements using vague language or those that simply suggest or recommend actions are often not powerful enough to be effective.

In June 2015, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education contracted with JSI to conduct an independent review of school wellness policies submitted in 2014 and 2015. In order to generate meaningful information about the quality of each wellness policy, and to allow for future cross school (and state) comparison, JSI used the WellSat 2.0 tool developed by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. The tool addresses 78 items, which are categorized into six sections: 1) nutrition education, 2) school meals, 3) competitive foods, 4) physical education and physical activity, 5) wellness promotion and marketing, and 6) implementation, evaluation, and communication. 216 school wellness policies were reviewed and scored. 80% of the policies reviewed failed to mention almost half of the WellSat 2.0 policy items. Nutrition education was the strongest and most comprehensive policy section and physical education and physical activity was the weakest and least comprehensive.

While many Massachusetts school districts have developed and adopted wellness policies, their strength and comprehensiveness can be improved. The following actions will help ensure all policies contribute positively to the health and well-being of children across the state: 1) increase awareness among school staff, parents, and community-based organizations about the link between health and education-related outcomes, 2) ensure tools and resources are up-to date and reflect current federal regulations, 3) provide school districts with guidance and technical assistance to ensure policies align with national standards and best practices, 4) support transparency and accountability by publically reporting wellness policies, and 5) foster networking among schools.