updated 7/13/2006 5:47:04 PM ET 2006-07-13T21:47:04

They're promising to keep closer tabs on student lunch trays, pull sugary treats from vending machines and classroom celebrations and encourage more pulse-raising activities during the school day.

  1. Don't miss these Health stories
    1. Splash News
      More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?

      Rates of women who are opting for preventive mastectomies, such as Angeline Jolie, have increased by an estimated 50 percent in recent years, experts say. But many doctors are puzzled because the operation doesn't carry a 100 percent guarantee, it's major surgery -- and women have other options, from a once-a-day pill to careful monitoring.

    2. Larry Page's damaged vocal cords: Treatment comes with trade-offs
    3. Report questioning salt guidelines riles heart experts
    4. CDC: 2012 was deadliest year for West Nile in US
    5. What stresses moms most? Themselves, survey says

The nation's public schools are under orders to adopt nutrition and exercise goals before classes resume in the fall. The written wellness policies are required by a federal law that took effect July 1.

"Some school districts and school buildings have already made a lot of these changes and some have done nothing just because they've never been required to," said Alicia Moag-Stahlberg, executive director of Action for Healthy Kids, a 50-state nonprofit network. "Frankly, schools that have never had this conversation are having it."

The law's primary objective is straightforward: combating rising childhood obesity rates. Overweight children miss more school than their average weight counterparts, according to the National School Boards Association. Backers also argue that reducing sugar in students' diets leads to greater focus in the classroom.

Some states are making similar efforts through new laws and policies, and the federal law gives school boards wide latitude, causing vast differences in their approaches.

More colorful lunches
In Tennessee's Williamson County, for instance, the broadly worded policy runs 23 lines; in Hampton, N.H., the five-page plan is so detailed it suggests elementary students have "at least two colors other than white and brown as part of their lunch meal."

Committees comprised of administrators, teachers, parents and students are looking well beyond the cafeteria for ways to promote healthier eating habits and more physical activity.

In St. Paul, students will find water, fruit juice and milk in vending machines that used to dispense soda. In Farmington, Utah, schools are holding recess before lunch so kids don't give short shrift to their meals in the race to the playground.

Elegant lunches to replace candy
Teachers in Cape Girardeau, Mo., will encounter restrictions on goodies they can give out in their classrooms. Lollipops and sodas will be no-nos.

student health

Rhonda Dunham, a principal at an elementary school in the district, will try other rewards for students who meet homework goals or display good behavior. One plan is to set up elegant lunches, where kids get specially prepared meals at tables with linen cloths, china and glassware.

"They feel a bit more grownup that way," she said.

Classroom candy also has lost favor in the northwestern Minnesota district of Perham Dent.

"The truth is, one Jolly Rancher isn't bad, but 13 years of several Jolly Ranchers a day is a bad habit to learn," said superintendent Tamara Uselman.

Her district is incorporating more movement into the school day as well. One geography teacher is setting up stations in her classroom so students are on the move every 20 minutes.

Many school districts are making clear that recess is valuable exercise time and shouldn't be withheld as punishment.

While school leaders and health advocates generally laud the law's intent, concerns do exist.

Congress didn't give schools money to implement the policies or offer compensation for the potential loss of vending sales proceeds.

An Illinois education panel noted another barrier: Schools have difficulty setting aside time from their other pressing priorities such as the federal No Child Left Behind law, which carries consequences if students don't show progress in core subjects.

No consequences
The wellness directive requires school districts to measure progress but doesn't contain consequences for those that don't live up to the law.

"I don't think the federal government put enough teeth into this," Dunham, the elementary principal, said. "We are accountable basically only to ourselves. In some school districts, I could see this going by the wayside."

And don't expect the wellness policies to, um, bear fruit overnight.

"It's like eating an elephant," said Brenda Greene, the National School Board Association's director of school health programs. "You need to do it one bite at a time."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments