University of Michigan research professor Lloyd Johnston has good news and bad news.
The good news first: Slowly but surely, public school lunches are getting healthier, with dishes like french fries being removed from school menus in favor of fresh fruits, veggies and whole grains.
The bad news: When it comes to physical education, Johnston says there’s not "much evidence of that improving."
The co-director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-funded research program Bridging the Gap, Johnston is the lead author of a just-released study analyzing how middle and high school wellness policies and practices are playing a role in the effort to combat childhood obesity.
Looking at data from the 2006-07 and 2007-08 school years, Johnston and his team studied how schools responded to a ederal mandate requiring them to develop and implement such policies by the start of the 2006-07 school year.
What they found was that progress had been made on nutrition, as schools served more healthy foods and eliminated some (but not all) unhealthy options. But schools simply did not prioritize physical activity — programs have almost been entirely squeezed out of the standard curriculum in many high schools, according to the findings.
Of course, a lot has changed since 2008. First Lady Michelle Obama launched her Let’s Move! campaign, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is in the process of implementing the landmark Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. But the report does provide insight into what these organizations face when it comes to battling childhood obesity, as it highlights the successes and continued failures when it comes to school wellness.
"One hopes that [our report] is going to have an impact," Johnston says. "I’m hopeful that some of our findings will be instructive to the USDA when they’re working out the specific [school nutrition] regulations, which I think they’re still doing."
There’s plenty of room for improvement everywhere, the findings show. Johnston points out that while many schools have drawn up wellness policies, many have yet to implement them. Even though nutrition has improved, there remain flaws — many schools have eliminated sugar-sweetened soda, but other sugar-filled beverages such as sports drinks and sweetened juices remain. Vending machines, á la carte cafeteria lines and school stores remain almost entirely unregulated, as a large percentage of schools had no nutritional guidelines for such venues.
But there’s no area that needs more immediate attention than physical education. Middle schools are doing better than high schools, as about 85 percent of students are required to take P.E. classes at some point during the school year. In high schools, the number falls to just 35 percent.
And as Johnston points out, even that 35 percent might only be required to take P.E. for a quarter or semester, meaning even fewer students are physically active year round. Students aren’t making it up with varsity or interscholastic sports, either; only about a third took part in a sport at some point during the year.
So even with all the attention given to P.E. programs by groups such as Let’s Move!, there’s still a long way to go.
"This wouldn’t yet reflect what the Obama group has been doing, but I don’t imagine there’s a lot of movement yet," Johnston says. "I think what’s going to have to change is that schools are going to have to build it in as a requirement."
Johnston and his team plan to continue to study school data to see if new initiatives make an impact on school campuses. They also are looking to study not just schools themselves, but the surrounding neighborhood.
What’s the impact, for example, if a school offers the healthiest of meals but there’s a junk food packed convenience store across the street? If schools stop serving sodas, do students just compensate and drink more after they leave campus?
And although the current data are jarring, Johnston says he’s optimistic things are headed in the right direction when it comes to school wellness.
"The consciousness of the country has been raised quite considerably," he says. "A lot of things have to happen, there is no simple fix."