Willis: Teaching nutrition with a Burger King down the street?

Apr. 04, 2013 @ 08:39 PM

School wellness programs are changing. First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign has brought national attention to the childhood obesity epidemic, and efforts have been made at the state and national level to improve the health of our nation’s children.

The Durham Public Schools system revised its School Wellness Policy in 2012; revised policy 3021’s purpose includes “set[ting] forth goals for our schools to provide children and adolescents with a healthy environment where they can consume nutritious meals, snacks and beverages; get regular physical activity; and learn about the importance of lifelong healthy behaviors.”

The policy is a multi-faceted approach to encouraging healthy behavior, including guidelines for school food. I am confident that the school system is doing the utmost to provide healthy food options.

However, foods served within school walls should not be our only concern – we also have to contend with the choices offered outside of campus.

Burger King, Taco Bell and Randy’s Pizza are just a few of the restaurants within walking distance of my alma mater, C. E. Jordan High School. Students frequent these restaurants throughout the school week. Freshmen and sophomores must eat lunch in the cafeteria, but juniors and seniors are eligible for off-campus lunch passes.

In this way, eating off-campus at these restaurants is incentivized as a privilege for upperclassmen. And of course, after the school day ends, everyone is free to visit these establishments; it is not uncommon for students to go get an after-school snack or a late lunch. They order french fries, hamburgers, burritos, or pizza, among other items. Because these items are often low priced and the restaurants are nearby, there is an atmosphere of readily available, unhealthy food options surrounding the school.

What, if anything, are we doing to prepare students for this atmosphere?

Luckily, Wellness Policy 3021 references the necessity of nutrition education, and stipulates that it be “[i]ntegrated into Health Education and/or other subjects at each grade level to provide students with the knowledge and skills necessary to promote and protect their health.”

However, as of today, there is only one required health class at Jordan High, and most students take it in ninth grade. By the time they are 11th graders with off-campus lunch passes, the nutrition lessons they learned two years prior are probably not salient enough to encourage them to make good decisions when they go out for lunch.

Regardless of class year, it is hard to encourage healthy eating outside of school when Burger King is visible from the school parking lot.

Students not only have to navigate the food environment immediately surrounding their school, but they have to make food choices everywhere they go.

The Wellness Policy stipulates that nutrition education “[p]rovide instruction regarding food marketing and its impact on health and nutrition,” but once again, if this is compiled into a class taken during freshman year of high school, its impact will be minimal.

Changes take time and effort. To be clear, I do not think that off-campus lunch privileges should be revoked; students would still have access to those foods after school or on the weekends.

Other (big) changes, like required health classes for every grade level, may be more effective, but difficult to implement. Smaller changes, like a nutrition refresher session for juniors and seniors with lunch passes, may be easier to put into effect.

Regardless, it is clear that we have to do more for our children. We cannot just feed them well on campus and give them one health class – we have to equip them to deal with the food environment at large. We have to inspire students to make healthy food choices in whatever way that we can, starting with more health education.



Rheaya Willis is a Jordan High School graduate now in her junior year at Yale University.