School districts nationwide have made improvements in measures related to nutritional policies, physical education and tobacco policies, according to the 2012 School Health Policies and Practices Study.
SHPPS, reported by the CDC, is described as the largest and most comprehensive survey to assess school health policies.
“Schools play a critical role in the health and well-being of our youth,” CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, said in a news release. “Good news for students and parents — more students have access to healthy food, better physical fitness activities through initiatives such as ‘Lets Move and campuses that are completely tobacco free.”
• The percentage of school districts that allowed soft drink companies to advertise soft drinks on school grounds decreased from 46.6 in 2006 to 33.5 in 2012.
• Between 2006 and 2012, the percentage of districts that required schools to prohibit offering junk food in vending machines increased from 29.8 to 43.4.
• Between 2006 and 2012, the percentage of districts with food procurement contracts that addressed nutritional standards for foods that can be purchased separately from the school breakfast or lunch increased from 55.1 to 73.5.
• Between 2000 and 2012, the percentage of districts that made information available to families on the nutrition and caloric content of foods available to students increased from 35.3 to 52.7.
Voices for Healthy Kids movement, a joint initiative of the American Heart Association and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, called attention to several other trends in the report.
For example, between 2000 and 2012, more schools began prohibiting junk food in various settings: a la carte offerings at breakfast and lunch, vending machines, school stores and in after-school programs.
The marketing of unhealthy food to students remains a problem, said Jill Birnbaum, executive director for Voices for Healthy Kids at the American Heart Association. Only 38.3% of school districts prohibit advertisements for junk foods or fast food restaurants on school property, according to a news release.
State departments of education play a key role in providing their school districts with model policies and technical assistance, noted Voices for Healthy Kids. Whereas almost all states and Washington, D.C., helped school districts increase access to free water, only 76.5% assisted schools in limiting student access to less nutritious food and beverages.
• The percentage of school districts that required elementary schools to teach physical education increased from 82.6 in 2000 to 93.6 in 2012.
• More than half of school districts (61.6%) had a formal agreement, such as a memorandum of agreement or understanding, between the school district and another public or private entity for shared use of school or community property. Among those districts, more than half had agreements with a local youth organization (such as the YMCA, Boys or Girls Clubs, or the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts) or a local parks or recreation department.
“Sharing recreational spaces allows both children and adults to get the exercise they need to be healthy by providing a place to be active in their community,” Birnbaum said. “Research has shown that people who have parks or recreational facilities nearby exercise 38% more than those who do not have easy access.”
Birnbaum noted room for significant improvement along with the promising trends. Most schools require physical education be taught at all grade levels, but few require the national recommendations of 150 minutes per week for elementary and middle schools and elementary schools and 225 minutes per week for high school students.
Additionally, only 58.9% of districts require scheduled recess in elementary schools and only 10.8% require a break for physical activity in middle schools.
According to the report, 26% of states had real-time access to student attendance or absenteeism information for all school districts in the state; 10.6% of districts had adopted a policy specifying a maximum ratio of students to school nurses; and 5.4% of districts had adopted a policy stating that each school will have a specified ratio of school nurses to students.
More than three-fourths of districts had adopted a policy stating that schools will provide administration of medications, case management for students with disabilities, CPR, first aid and violence prevention.
In addition, 12.5% of districts had at least one school-based health center that offered both health services and mental health or social services to students. And 6.8% of districts had at least one school-based health center that offered only health services, while 3.2% of districts had at least one school-based health center that offered only mental health and social services to students.
SHPPS is a national survey periodically conducted to assess school health policies and practices at the state, district, school and classroom levels. SHPPS assesses the characteristics of eight components of school health: health education, physical education and activity, health services, mental health and social services, nutrition services healthy and safe school environment, faculty and staff health promotion, and family and community involvement.
SHPPS was conducted at all levels in 1994, 2000 and 2006. The 2012 study collected data at the state and district levels only. The school- and classroom-level data from SHPPS will be collected in 2014 and released in 2015.