The Oakland school district will now limit classroom parties where sweets are served to one a month.

Oakland schools implement new health rules, limit parties with sweets

on September 15, 2014

With the new school year beginning, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) will implement a new wellness policy—approved just before summer break—to fight childhood obesity. The new policy updated many existing programs, but one of its most striking features is that it will limit the number of classroom parties with sugary desserts to one a month. Officials and parents agree that even this modest reform may take time to win full parental backing.

The push for policy enforcement comes from an updated partnership between the Alameda County Public Health Department (ACPHD) and the school district. A July report said Alameda County spent $2.17 billion on obesity in 2006, either in funding health programs or as costs lost to non-productivity from obesity-related health problems. But the report estimated those costs rose by as much as 28 percent between 2007 and 2011. The amount of money allocated to obesity prevention is much smaller, according to Jenny Wang, senior program specialist for ACPHD Nutrition Services. “The money that goes into schools—that’s more about prevention, and that’s like a drop in the bucket. We’re spending so little,” Wang said.

Over a third of school-aged children in Alameda County are considered overweight or obese, according to the report, which defines overweight as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 25 to 29.99. A BMI over 30 is considered obese. (BMI is calculated from an individual’s height and weight and correlates with their percentage of body fat.) In the OUSD in particular, half of the students are overweight or obese, and two-thirds of them do not meet fitness standards, according to the district’s website.

In May, the district adopted the new and comprehensive wellness policy, bringing together programs for nutrition, physical education, health education and health services. Each school has a “wellness champion,” a teacher who is paid to promote the policy on-site. The new policy updated and combined many existing nutrition guidelines, including a decade-old ban on soft drinks.

The district now makes an effort to provide locally-grown produce in school meals, and only food and beverages that meet the district’s nutrition standards are allowed in school meals, at school events, at classroom parties or for sale on school campuses. These nutrition standards ban food in which more than one-third of the calories come from fat, more than 10 percent of the calories from saturated fat, or more than one-third of its weight from sugar. Additionally, only beverages that are 100 percent fruit juice, nonfat or 1 percent milk, soymilk or water are allowed.

“We don’t allow sodas or sugary drinks. There’s no candy, no cookies, donuts, cakes or pastries. What happens when a class is having a party? That’s hard to say, but we do offer healthy foods in our venues,” said Jody London, the school board member who represents District 1, or much of North Oakland.

Wang said the implementation of some of the district’s older rules has been an ongoing problem because parents still bring unhealthy food and drink to school events.“There’s a part of me that says okay, [parents] should learn about the options—cook healthier, shop healthier,” Wang said. “But parents can know all these things and still struggle with acting them out.”

Parents sometimes will bring sweet things to classrooms and put one of each on students’ desks, said Nancy Deming, an Oakland parent whose daughter is in 8th grade at Montera Middle School. Deming has also worked as the OUSD Sustainability Initiatives Program Manager for nutrition and custodial services. “There was one situation where a teacher didn’t want a soda that a parent brought, and it was awkward. This parent went out of her way to get something for the class, and the teacher was calling her out in front of everyone,” Deming said.

“Implementation can be tricky,” Deming added, especially when it comes to fundraising. “As a parent, I know my daughter’s grade wanted to go to an environmental camp once, and to raise money they traditionally sell donuts,” Deming said. “Now they can’t do that, so the wellness department has a fundraising sheet on how to make money without selling sugary things.”

Joyce Peters, the district’s dietician, said school meals already generally fall into line with the no-sweets policy, but classroom celebrations—where students or parents bring sugary food to share—needed to be addressed. In order to prevent excessive sugar in classrooms, the district is publicizing to parents that classes may only ignore nutrition guidelines once a month. “We’ve decided that we will allow one unhealthy celebration a month, because some people can’t imagine celebrating a birthday without sugary foods. We’re trying to be reasonable,” Peters said.

Peters said she expects the adjustment to take time, but thinks they’ll see real change by the end of the year. Wang added that she encourages parents to work together to support the ban on sweets. “As a parent, I would enlist other parents to advocate for the school environment to really support what we know is healthy,” she said.

Photo by Basil D Soufi
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