There is an identified need to improve the health of our children in the El Paso area so they can reach their full academic potential. The Paso del Norte Institute for Healthy Living has partnered with Action for Healthy Kids to work with community members and school districts to identify issue areas and adopt a policy and implementation plan for improvement. This work is being funded by the Paso del Norte Health Foundation’s Healthy Eating Active Living Initiative.
After conducting an issue analysis of three El Paso school districts, reviewing their individual District WellSAT scores, and hosting meetings with the El Paso Healthy Schools Coalition, we have identified four areas of focus for policy improvement that will impact children’s health and that have the support of both the coalition and the school districts.
Districts should recognize that recess is an integral part of the school day and necessary for child development and social skills, and helps students focus on learning when in class. Effective recess policies should:
- Specify number of minutes per day – national recommendation is 30 minutes for students K-5th grade;
- Not allow recess to be withheld as punishment or for other school activities/tutoring;
- Enable recess to take place before lunch when possible and/or before the end of the school day;
- Include a reporting system for teachers to record when recess takes place.
Healthy School Meals
Kids who are hungry have difficulty concentrating. Studies show students who eat breakfast and also eat nutritious foods during the day are more focused, less disruptive in class, and perform better academically.
To ensure all students have available a nutritious breakfast and lunch, districts must address barriers to participation. These can include long lines, food selection, atmosphere, awareness, and quality. Promote participation in school meals by:
- Ensuring there are an adequate number of school lunch shifts for all students to be able to participate in school meal program;
- Providing alternative forms of meal delivery for high school students, including grab and go, kiosks, food trucks and other means of making food more accessible to students;
- Developing marketing materials that promote school meals;
- Engaging students in the school meal program through focus groups and surveys to determine why they do not want to participate, which foods they would like to see in the school meal, and other changes that would enhance their participation;
- Making sure students are aware of which foods are available for additional portions;
- Promoting sharing tables to encourage consumption of nutritious foods and reduce plate waste;
- Ensuring wellness policies address competitive foods and do not allow food fundraisers during the school day.
Safe Routes to School
To allow our children an opportunity to be physically active before and after school they need to be able to walk or bike safely to and from their campus. However, there have been several tragic occurrences this past year that have discouraged parents from allowing their children to walk or bike to school. To ensure students have a safe path to travel to and from school; parents, school districts, city and county government and community members must work together to find solutions.
Recommended first steps toward a solution include:
- Conducting an issue analysis to identify specific problems to address within each school district;
- Researching Safe Routes to School programs and work with school board members, parents, local public works and law enforcement to implement;
- Exploring campus options for safer drop off and pick-up areas for children;
- Encouraging parents and students to walk and bike to school to reduce traffic congestion at schools.
Many communities lack safe, adequate places for children and their families to exercise and play. Schools might have a variety of recreational facilities—gymnasiums, playgrounds, fields, courts, and tracks—but many districts close their property to the public after school hours because of concerns about costs, vandalism, security, maintenance, and liability in the event of injury. To ensure students and families are able to maximize use of school facilities, districts should:
- Develop policies for opening outdoor school facilities for use during non-school hours;
- Consider policies that allow access to indoor school facilities for use during non-school hours;
- Consider allowing third parties, such as youth organizations or youth sports leagues, to operate recreation programs using school facilities.