Despite the image of Colorado as healthy state, a new report finds that in fact fewer than a handful of school districts here regulate the nutritional qualities of school snacks or require physical education during the school day.

In addition, School Wellness in Colorado: Findings from a Survey of Large School Districts, published in September by the Colorado Children’s Campaign, found that poverty among children is rising faster in Colorado than any other state, further compounding efforts to improve children’s health.

The survey, conducted between July 2009 and March 2010, represents 80 percent of Colorado’s students, according to Scott Groginsky, senior policy director for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

Colorado Children’s Campaign staffers expressed disappointment in the findings, especially since it was Groginsky and others’ impression that the issues of healthy food and physical fitness were being tackled aggressively by schools.

“Improving school health and wellness has been a priority for state policymakers and, for a long time, there has been discussion at the state Legislature,” Groginsky said. “And what we were hearing from districts is that they have things handled, that they were fine, and to stay out of their business.”

Colorado Children’s Campaign staffers decided to look at the data for themselves.

They collected data from 23 of Colorado’s largest districts and compared their standards and requirements for nutrition and physical education to school districts nationwide in an effort to determine where Colorado’s children stand in comparison to national trends.

Lack of nutrition guidelines raise concerns

Researchers found that only four of 23 districts require all snacks to meet nutritional standards in all schools, and only six of 23 districts require that all snacks meet nutritional standards in elementary schools. Eight of the districts require that at least 50 percent of snacks in all schools meet nutritional standards and two of the districts lack any requirements on nutritional standards for snacks.

While meals must meet guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are no federal nutritional requirements on snacks or beverages, often referred to as “competitive foods” because they are pitted against school lunch programs. However, in Colorado a 2008 law requires nutritional standards on beverages. Vending machine snacks, though, go largely unregulated and ignored in Colorado, Groginsky said.

Groginsky is puzzled by the lack of nutritional standards since young people seem to want to eat healthy food.

“Kids like healthy food, they like salad bars,” said Goginsky. “In Gilpin County, three-fourths of students said they care about the nutritional quality of their food.”

Critics of improving nutritional standards of school snacks and beverages, however, don’t feel that such legislation is necessary at the state level and see it as a district and parenting issue. Or, they have identified competitive snacks as a critical source of revenue for school districts and say that students will simply buy the undesirable snacks elsewhere if they’re not available at school.

Examples from across the country, identified in the survey, have found that this simply is not true. In fact, in most districts, there is a one-year drop in snack sales, followed by stable or increased revenue – especially in school lunch programs – resulting from healthier choices being introduced.

“When kids don’t load up on junk food and don’t have those options available, they are more likely to participate in school lunch programs,” said Groginsky.

Physical education requirements also fall short

The survey also looked at physical activity policies and standards and found that Colorado is not doing enough to combat the growing problem of child obesity. Colorado is only one of two states that do not require local districts to set a minimum number of P.E. classes and credits for students.

Nearly all districts require high school students to take some form of physical education to graduate. Twenty-two of 23 require at least one semester of P.E., while only six require at least two semesters of physical education for graduation.

Only a few set any requirements for elementary and middle school students. And only four districts surveyed require physical education courses for elementary and middle school students.

Furthermore, only one district out of 23 required a specific number of minutes of physical activity per week and only four encouraged or promoted a specified allotment of time for physical activity.

The survey pinned the shrinking physical activity in schools to increased pressure to focus on  reading, writing and math, subjects tested on the Colorado Student Assessment (CSAP) tests, and to shrinking school budgets.

But the reasons to keep students healthy abound, Groginsky said. A 2009 National Association of State Boards of education report found that students who are healthy and physically active are more likely to be motivated, attentive, and successful academically.

The survey aimed to tease out differences between elementary, middle and high schools across the state to determine where action was most needed. While high schools did have some physical activity requirements, elementary and middle schools lacked such guidelines. While the results on school nutrition were mixed, the majority of districts did not have healthy guidelines and standards in place.

Groginsky emphasized the importance of implementing health education at a young age.

“All kids should learn about the value of exercise and these things are important to promote, and they will carry on later in school and life.”

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