By: Ilana Raskind
These factors should not be understated, but we would do well consider other, perhaps less intractable issues. No matter how politically appealing policies and programs to address childhood obesity may appear, in reality they are only as good as the evidence on which they are based, and the strength of their implementation. Anyone who has ever promised to throw away the ice cream and buy some apples, or made a New Year’s resolution to join a gym, knows just how difficult changing eating and exercise habits can be. While no panacea to these challenges exists, there is growing evidence that school-based policies addressing healthy eating and physical activity are associated with the caloric intake and weight status of students.
Researchers in public health and the behavioral sciences have been studying health behavior change for decades. In the wake of the current obesity epidemic, this research, particularly as it relates to effective methods for increasing healthy eating and physical activity, has reached new heights. However, the translation of academic research into practice is an age-old problem; academic journals are not widely read by the public, and many innovations sit on shelves gathering dust. While the political “war” in the school cafeteria continues to rage, a tremendous opportunity exists for researchers, public health professionals, and educators to put this research to good use.
The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act maintained a requirement that all schools participating in federal nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch program, develop and implement local school wellness policies. Frameworks were provided to guide the development of the policies, and included such critical components as nutrition education and nutrition promotion. However, despite promising evidence, several reports have recently been released indicating that implementation has often been weak and lacking comprehensiveness. Even the best programs on paper will not succeed if they are not implemented with fidelity and completeness. By keeping information flowing between researchers and practitioners with expertise in program planning, implementation, and evaluation, the potential of programs to effectively address the complexities of health behavior might just be realized.