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D.C. Leading the Charge for Healthier Schools

Few people are aware that the District of Columbia has emerged as a national leader in school health over the last year. In May 2010, the D.C. City Council unanimously passed the D.C. Healthy Schools Act, the most comprehensive, and progressive, school-based wellness legislation in the country. This landmark act takes significant steps to better nutrition and address hunger among District students by improving school meals, increasing physical activity and strengthening school wellness policies.

According to D.C. Hunger Solutions, poor nutrition and lack of physical activity are the second leading cause of preventable death in Washington, D.C. In 2009, 40 percent of D.C. households with children reported that they were unable to afford enough food in the last year, and 43% of all D.C. school-aged children are obese or overweight. Recognizing that D.C. children are at risk for serious health problems, Councilmember Mary Cheh crafted a bill that goes beyond federal mandates. The D.C. Healthy Schools Act requires healthier school meals and competitive foods; provides free breakfast and free reduced-price lunches; encourages farm to school programs to help students learn about fresh, locally grown produce; provides increased opportunities for physical activity and health education; creates greener schools by encouraging school gardens and recycling programs; and requires schools to work with the community to adopt a comprehensive wellness policy. Just months after Congress limited USDA’s ability to bring potatoes and tomato paste in line with national dietary guidelines, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) continue to implement bold policies that should motivate other districts to follow suit.

As one of our co-chairs often points out, policy is 80% implementation. DCPS has effectively transformed cafeterias across the city, due in large part to the leadership of Jeff Mills, DCPS Food Services Director. A former NYC restaurateur, Mills has spent the last year stocking new salad bars, revamping menus, eliminating sugary flavored milk and renegotiating contracts with concessionaires, all to bring healthier, higher quality foods to D.C. schools. Last year, DCPS served two million more lunches than the year before, lunches that were healthier and cost the school system less.

This is not to say that implementing the D.C. Healthy Schools Act has been without challenges. Vendor shortages, ensuring menus match actual items served, and training food service workers all posed real and eye-opening obstacles in the first few months. Mills and his team came up with innovative solutions when participation dropped, aggressively pursuing and redesigning menu items that weren’t selling, launching education campaigns about the foods being served, and engaging cafeteria workers beforehand, providing iPad demonstrations on how to prepare meals. They learned that education and training—for students, food service workers, and administrators—is just as important as the food itself. 

The D.C. Healthy Schools Act is an empowering template for school systems across the country. For more information on the legislation and D.C.’s continuing implementation efforts, please visit www.dchealthyschools.org. 

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