JUNKING THE JUNK FOOD
Sacramento schools aim to create 21st-century wellness policy.
WRITTEN BY PAUL TOWERS
ILLUSTRATION BY PAUL KREIZENBECK
Sacramento City Unified School District leaders passed a policy aimed at limiting junk food on its 77 campuses just two weeks before the start of the 2017 – 2018 school year, though not without some controversy.
Opponents to the new School Wellness Policy challenged the role of schools in promoting healthy food and physical activities and restricting unhealthy foods, while supporters cited the urgent and increasing obesity epidemic in the region.
Shaping the policy
The district began the process of updating its 11-year-old wellness policy under federal mandates of the National School Lunch Program at least a year prior to its passage, with community and partner engagement through its School Wellness Committee. Specifically, the policy ensures that the district’s 47,000-plus students can regularly participate in physical activities, guarantees that all schoolchildren have access to healthy foods on schools’ campuses, and limits the distribution and sales of junk foods, particularly candy and sugary beverages, on school campuses.
The end product — a 23-page document — is meant to provide comprehensive and detailed guidance. Victoria Flores, director of the SCUSD’s Student Support and Health Services Department and member of the wellness committee, cites an example of such guidance: The policy notes that students can eat food in the context of an educational class, such as making ice cream in chemistry.
“Students should enjoy the magic of science,” Flores says.
Wellness policy woes
It wasn’t until the committee circulated a public survey that it received some pushback on its self-described “21st-century policy.” Several students from Sacramento’s Luther Burbank High School weighed in, expressing concern about fundraising efforts for clubs on campus. For student clubs around the district — including those at this school, where the majority of students (72 percent) are economically disadvantaged and 96 percent are minorities — selling candy is one of their primary sources of income.
Flores and other wellness committee members put together a toolkit of other fundraising options for students, including point-of-sale fundraising (for instance, at a school store), fun runs and walk-a-thons, school-spirit promotional items, and online crowdfunding opportunities. Committee members hope these alternatives will help clubs remain successful while also promoting healthy eating.
But that still didn’t sit well with some. John Perryman, a teacher at Luther Burbank High School and the only person to testify against the entire policy at the 5-to-1 school board vote, pushed even further. He called the policy overreach, an effort to “drag the district into the culture war.”
Others argued the efforts can’t stop on school grounds.
“Stopping junk foods in schools is one of the steps to solve the problem of unhealthy eating and obesity. However, it should not be the only step the district takes. The district should involve parents and communities in its efforts,” said Bruce Tran, a senior at John F. Kennedy High School, who testified before the school board and also serves as a student reporter for the Access Sacramento TV station.
School board member Michael Minnick (Area 4, Tallac Village) agreed and said that he sees the policy as a “living document setting the stage that we want our kids to be healthy, but this is not the final draft.”
Minnick said there’s room to clarify additional details in the policy (which the school district staff will do through meetings with parent and student groups) and, as district staff and board members develop the administrative regulations, the measurable goals for meeting the policy’s mandates.
If all goes according to plan, Sacramento City Unified School District is on pace not only to restrict junk food by next year, but also to serve as a local model of creating healthy food culture for years to come.
Paul Towers is a frequent contributor to GroundTruth, a leader of the Sacramento Food Policy Council, serves as the Organizing Director & Policy Advocate at Pesticide Action Network, and enjoys cooking food from his garden with his children at his home in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood.