Elm City ‘model’ for school wellness programs

New Haven is not usually associated with the term “model district.” But a model it is — at least on the wellness front.

According to the Connecticut State School Wellness Policy Report released late last month, the New Haven district has the strongest school wellness policies, despite being one of the poorest cities in the state.

The Connecticut State Department of Education, in conjunction with Yale Rudd Center for Policy & Obesity, assessed 166 state districts for the comprehensiveness and strength of their school wellness policies on nutrition education, school meals, other school food and beverages, physical education, physical activity, communication, and promotion and evaluation.

“New Haven was number one in the entire state,” said Dr. Marlene Schwartz, senior research scientist at the Rudd Center, who worked on the report. “It did an outstanding job on their school wellness policy.”

The report grouped districts by socioeconomic level and found that Group I — composed of “high-need, low socioeconomic urban districts,” which included New Haven — fared best overall.

The results were unexpected, Schwartz said.

“Our original hypothesis was that wealthier districts would have higher standards,” she said.

One explanation, Schwartz said, is that low socioeconomic districts such as New Haven may also have scored better because they have more pressing health problems­, such as obesity, on their plates.

New Haven has also been at the forefront of implementing healthy policies in Connecticut over the past decade, said Steve Updegrove, senior medical advisor for New Haven schools.

For instance, the district banned soft drinks from all public elementary, middle and high schools three years before Connecticut state law began requiring it in 2006, Updegrove said. At the same time, city schools banned candy from their vending machines and replaced them with healthier alternatives.

In 2004, when Connecticut districts were required to develop school wellness policies under the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, New Haven already had a School Nutrition Committee, of which Updegrove was a part. The committee’s duties were expanded to fulfill the new law’s requirement, and it was renamed the School Wellness Policy Committee, he said.

“They are our model district,” Schwartz said. “They really tried to think concretely about what they are going to do.”

Still, the report only gauged the comprehensiveness and strength of the wellness policy, not its implementation — a caveat to placing too much weight on New Haven’s high score.

Updegrove said some districts may have scored lower than other districts even if they have better wellness outcomes.

“Some districts are actually doing better than their grades [reflect],” he said.

Schwartz agreed, adding that the report may not accurately capture the nutritional standards at schools that did not record all their wellness activities. The report, she said, only took into account what district officials wrote down.

Another reason for the discrepancies in performance among districts was political leanings, she said.

“Districts with a greater proportion of Democrats to Republicans tended to have stronger policies,” Schwartz said. “Rules from above are more acceptable to Democrats.”

She also said larger districts probably recorded their wellness activities more consistently.

The report used a coding tool that awarded districts a score of two for a strong statement, one for a weak statement and zero for no mention. Schwartz said she hopes the Rudd Center receives funding so that it can put the coding tool online to allow greater access.

New Haven received the greatest number of twos of all districts across all seven categories assessed.

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