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Wellness policies and academics.


School nutrition advocates, and health care organizations from across the country assert "that education and health are interdependent systems" and "healthy children are in a better position to acquire knowledge" since "no curriculum is brilliant enough to compensate for a hungry stomach or a distracted mind" (Symons, Cinelli, James, & Groff, 1997, p. 220). To this end, federal mandates were updated and policies were refined in order to insure positive student health practices, at least during the course of the school day.

In June 2004, the National School Lunch Act and the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 were amended to improve nutrition standards for child nutrition programs. The reauthorization was called the Child Nutrition and WIC (Women, Infants and Children) Reauthorization Act of 2004 (Public Law 108-265). In the School Nutrition Reauthorization Act of 2004, the federal government mandated that all school divisions participating in the National School Lunch program initiate a school wide wellness policy by school year 2006 (SNA, 2005).

Section 204 of Public Law 108 designates the Local Wellness Policy component of the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004. This abbreviated section of the overall law encourages the local school division to establish "appropriate" programs that reinforce "nutrition education, physical activity, and other school-based activities" (Public Law 108-265). Based on this law, federal funding for state agencies would be directly tied to the programming and promotion of appropriate school nutrition programs in the local school division and these programs would be designated in a school wellness policy. This article includes nutrition guidelines as well as nutrition education programs and physical activity standards. The Commonwealth of Virginia includes, in Superintendent's memo #208-10, a five-year review process for program initiation and implementation practices that specify the evaluation of Virginia school nutrition programs in order to determine compliance with federal standards.

How do Virginia school divisions implement school wellness policies and what is the impact of these policies on student academic performance? As indicated in the research, most localities include wellness policies in their local policy manuals; and, under the guidelines of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and most recently, the national Common Core Standards, a majority of school divisions have standardized procedures for testing academic progress, particularly in math, and reading. Virginia localities support the importance of school nutrition policies as mandated through the Reauthorization Act; and, most localities, though to a lesser degree, support the use of physical activity and/or physical education as an additional arena in which to improve student health. In addition, many educators would support the importance of both these concepts as a method to improve student academic performance; yet most, if not all, localities fail to use the local wellness policy as a template to solidify and support child nutrition, physical education, and activity as a prerequisite to improve academic performance in core curriculum subjects. This article seeks to introduce a topic of study that will be statistically investigated in future analysis of Virginia Standard of Learning Test scores and Virginia School Division wellness policies. Can the local wellness policy be an active template to improve student academic performance?

Purpose of the School Nutrition and Reauthorization Act 2004

The guiding premise of the local wellness policy is to improve the level of student health for our nation's students as well as provide students and parents needed tools for early intervention and prevention of disease. Most of the items presented in the Reauthorization Act highlight school breakfast and lunch programs, competitive sales and school vending. Physical education and activity comprise a smaller portion of the overall Reauthorization Policy. Yet, according to the Center for Disease Control, in 2010, Virginia had a 26% obesity rate in a nation where no state has a rate less than 20% (CDC, 2010). These statistics clearly indicate the need for nutritional standards as well as wellness programming in Virginia school systems. As part of state funding, localities also must have a wellness policy outlined in the local policy manual. Virginia encourages local school divisions to establish the local policy as it is described by the federal policy. This leaves the school divisions across the Commonwealth with a great amount of latitude in writing, promoting, financing and assessing the success of Virginia Wellness Policies. In reviewing local wellness policies, in many cases, goals and programs, when present, seem vague, or obviously under developed. If policies are ambiguous, then their intended strength is affected and implementation practices can be hindered.

The School Nutrition Association (SNA) has conducted a number of national studies on school wellness policies in order to evaluate wellness policy implementation practices for nutrition education and physical activity practices across the country. The development of nutrition guidelines is the most successfully initiated portion of the wellness policy. Often studies, such as those written by the SNA, produce viable information; yet, a significant limitation is the analysis of the policy through the role of the school nutrition director, rather than from the perspective of other key stakeholders. This limitation does not provide an inclusive view of school activities and physical education programs, and could potentially narrow the scope of information needed to evaluate good programming. According to federal guidelines, compliant policies include performance standards developed by key stakeholders, which include initiatives for both nutrition and physical activity.

In Virginia, only 34.1% of the 132 school divisions included diverse stakeholders on the wellness committee (Serrano, et al., 2007). Lyn, O'Meara, Hepburn and Potter (2011) suggests that stakeholder involvement appears to be a low priority since they are not often included in local wellness committees. According to the School Nutrition Association, School Nutrition Directors execute "78% of local wellness policies, teachers 78%, as well as principals 65%, other administrators 61% and school nurses 59%" (SNA, 2005). These statistics imply a high level of administrative decision making. Studies also find assessments and policy wording vague (Castelli & Hillman, 2007) because there is a fear of loosing control over local autonomy or having higher levels of local and state accountability. In addition, most local wellness policies do not link improved academic performance directly to the local wellness policy, in spite of information available on the importance of nutrition and activity to student academic performance (GENyouth, 2013). Unless these areas are more succintly developed, local wellness policies will be too underdeveloped to truly assist young Virginians in becoming healthier, and better performing students.

Nutrition and Academic Performance

The enactment of The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 was a significant step in addressing the diverse needs of the nutrition and activity challenges of our nation today. School nutrition and activity programs provide a plan to help decrease the rate of obesity and improve student health by also increasing activity (Brener et al., 2011). As Falbe, Kenny, Henderson and Schwartz (2011) suggest, there is an increased need to promote activity and good nutrition early in life in order to give children the resources needed for healthy habits. The local wellness policy is designed to be that resource. In addition, it would be remiss to omit the significance of proper nutrition as a tool to improve student academic performance as we know healthy students miss less time from school (Symons et al, 1997). At the very least, more time in school is likely to improve student performance. Further research supports the use of improved student nutrition practices in local school food service programs (Reauthorization Act, 2004).

No research study reviewed denies the significance of school nutrition programs designed to address weight and obesity as confounding factors in student academic performance. In 2004, Datar, Sturm and Magnabosco, discuss the link between weight status and academic performance in which "significantly lower math and reading test scores" ( (p. 58) were found in overweight students. Judge and Jahns (2007) supports this research by stating overweight third graders scored lower than their non-overweight third graders on standardized tests. The School Nutrition Association (2005), GENyouth (2013) (a partnership organization comprising the National Dairy Council, and the National Football League) and Satcher (2005) support the use of proper nutrition, particularly in school, as a significant supporting factor for improved student academic performance. The implementation of school breakfast programs is of particular importance (Wellness Impact Executive Summary, 2013), as it clearly aligns breakfast programs with higher standardized tests scores, particularly in reading and math. Symons et al. (1997) further describe research which "confirmed that students participating in school-based breakfast and lunch programs demonstrated increased school attendance, greater class participation, improved emotional behavior, and increased academic performance" (p. 224). Based on these studies, appropriate nutrition practices, as outlined by the Reauthorization Act and implemented in local policy, appear to contribute to not only student health, but also student success in school.

Physical Activity and Academic Performance

Roberts, Freed, and McCarthy (2010) present significant findings on the correlation of aerobic fitness and standardized test scores for fifth, seventh, and ninth graders. Their assessment compares reading test scores and improved mile run times and provides the reader information on how increased physical activity can improve cognitive functioning. Siegel's (2006) research analysis found that reading and math scores "improved significantly as the number of physical fitness tests achieved increased" (p. 9). Satcher (2005) cites research from the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) that discusses improvement in math, reading, and writing test scores for those students having increased physical activity time during the school day. In addition, NASPE activity standards recommend 60 minutes of activity per day (Faber, Kulinna, and Darst, 2007). Yet, "fewer than 25 percent of children in the United States get at least 30 minutes of any kind of daily physical activity" (Satcher, 2006, p. 26). "Evidence suggests that time spent in physical education does not decrease learning in other subjects...they have been shown to do equally well or better in academic classes" (Satcher, 2005, p. 27). Based on these findings, it is sound to suggest that "physical education does not detract from academic achievement" (Fede, 2012, p. 18), and it becomes difficult to fathom how schools could limit or eliminate physical education, or physical activity times for students.

"The healthy, physically active child is more likely to be academically successful" (SNA, 2005). The National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE, 2012) reminds the reader math and reading test scores improved, particularly for girls who had increased physical education time. They continue to argue this analysis with this powerful statement: "Yet as educators and policymakers focus on leaving no child behind academically, some state board of education members are wondering if schools are inadvertently leaving half of the child's education behind" (NASBE, 2012, p. 13). These insights provide powerful reminders that the kinesthetic learner may enhance their academic success through the use of activity and the building of basic fitness skills.

How can the local Wellness Policy improve Academic Performance?

As Murray states in the Wellness Impact, "(W)e can't make kids smarter, but with improved nutrition and physical activity, we can put a better student in the chair" (Executive Summary, 2013, p. 3). Further, GENyouth, promotes the use of a wellness policy to support student academics since it is "more relevant than ever as the rigorous Common Core State Standards raise academic expectations of schools and students nationwide" (Executive Summary, 2013, p. 2). A solid commitment for using the local wellness policy as a guide for nutrition, physical education and activity is an excellent way to improve student health, attendance and academic performance. Based on this information, local school divisions should not overlook the local wellness policy as a powerful resource for student physical success and academic growth. In addition, integrating nutrition education and physical education into classroom pedagogical practices has the potential to improve overall academic performance.


Brener, N., Chriqui, J., O'Toole, T., Schwartz, M., McManus, T. (2011). Establishing a baseline measure of school wellness-related policies implemented in a nationally representative sample of school districts. Journal of American Dietetic Association. 111:894-901.

Castelli, D., & Hillman, C. (2007). Physical education performance outcomes and cognitive function. Strategies, 21(1), 26-30.

Center for Disease Control (2010). Obesity trends in among U.S. adults between 1985 and 2010.

Datar, A., Sturm, R., & Magnabosco, J. (2004). Childhood overweight and academic performance: National study of kindergartners and first-graders. Obesity Research, 12(1), 58-68.

Executive Summary: (2013) The wellness impact: Enhancing academic success through healthy school environments. www.

Faber, L., Kulinna, P., & Darst, P. (2007). Strategies for physical activity promotion beyond the physical education classroom. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 78(9),27-31.

Falbe, J., Kenny, E., Henderson, K., & Schwartz, M. (2011). The wellness child care assessment tool: A measure to assess the quality of written nutrition and physical activity policies. Journal of the American Dietetic Association,111(12),1852-1860.

Fede, M. (2012). Physical activity strategies for improved cognition: The mind/body connection. Strategies. Nov/Dec. 16-20.

Judge, S., & Jahns, L. (2007). Association of overweight with academic performance and social and behavioral problems: An update from the early childhood longitudinal study. The Journal of School Health, 77(10), 672-678.

Lyn, R., O'Meara, S., Hepburn, V., & Potter, A. (2011). Statewide evaluation of local wellness policies in georgia: An exami nation of policy compliance, policy strength, and associated factors. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 1-8.

National Association of State Boards of Education: Chapter D: Policies to Promote Physical Activity and Physical Education. Fit, Healthy and Ready to Learn: A School Health Policy Guide. (2012). 2nd ed.

Public Law 108-265: United States 108th Congress Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004.

Roberts, C., Freed, B., & McCarthy, W. (2010). Low aerobic fitness and obesity are associated with lower standardized test scores in children. The Journal of Pediatrics, 156 (5): (issue):, 711-718. Report Brief for School Administrators: The wellness impact: enhancing academic success through healthy school

Satcher, D. (2005). Healthy and Ready to Learn. Educational Leadership, 63(1), 26-30.

Serrano, E., Kowaleska, A., Hosig, K., Fuller, C., Fellin, L., & Wigand, V. (2007). Status and goals of local school wellness policies in Virginia: A response to the child nutrition and wic reauthorization act of 2004. Journal of Nutrition Education Behavior, 39(2):,95-100.

School Nutrition Association Local Wellness Policy Recommendations (2005).

Siegel, D. (2006). Physical fitness and academic achievement. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 77(2), 9.

Superintendent's memo #208, September 2010. Virginia website: Memo.

Symons, C., Cinelli, B., James, T., & Groff, G.(1997). Bridging student health risks and academic achievement through comprehensive school health programs. Journal of School Health, 67(6), 220-227.

Donna M. Kanary, Ed.S., Virginia State University
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Author:Kanary, Donna M.
Publication:VAHPERD Journal
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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