Members of a school board, administrators and staff, community groups and foodservice vendors all play a role in the success of a wellness program, including communicating its purpose, expectations and limitations—but probably no group is more important to win over and work with than parents.
Winning Them Over
Parents are the most influential role models for children, with more influence than any other adult. If parents are not supportive of wellness initiatives at school and they neglect healthy habits at home as well, the likelihood of a child making lifelong healthy changes is low. And without parents’ support, building a sustainable school wellness program is difficult.
“Most parents won't know how school food service works and the restrictions and guidelines that must be followed to provide healthy meals to students—that they’ll eat—all on a very tight budget,” says Andrea Giancoli, MPH, RD, co-founder of Fit4School, a company specializing in the development of wellness programs for school districts.
“Parents want what is best for their kids. They want them to be healthy, to succeed at school. We all do,” says Nora Howell, MA, interim executive director of Action for Healthy Kids (AFHK), a national public-private partnership that focuses on changes in schools to improve nutrition and increase physical activity. By educating parents on principles of good nutrition, and by showing them how these principles are realized in your school wellness policy, Howell says, you prove to parents that you make a significant impact on their children’s health, now and in the future.
In many communities, parents may not even know a school wellness policy exists, says Vanessa Cavallaro, MS, RD, LDN, Jump Up& Go! Project Manager at Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Massachusetts and co-chair of her state’s AFHK team. A survey of parents by AFHK found many parents are not fully aware of what is taking place in their kids’ schools in such areas as nutrition education in the curriculum, amounts of time devoted to physical education classes and minutes allotted for lunch periods. The vast majority of parents (83 percent) had no knowledge of local wellness policy requirements.
But when asked, parents had clear views on what should be done in schools with respect to nutrition and physical activity. Parents believe promotion of healthy food choices in school meals, limiting high calorie/low nutrient food offerings and providing information on nutrition to parents are important and should be required as away to encourage good nutrition practices.
A key step is to make parents aware of the gap between their expectations and the reality of what is taking place in their kids’ schools. In addition to parents’ lack of awareness, the AFHK survey found significant gaps between parents’ expectations and realistic goals in nutrition education, physical activity and lunch period durations. Often parents may be upset that more isn’t being done to eliminate classroom treats or to offer more vegetarian menu options, while others may think of the Wellness Committee as the “food police” and take an approach of “don’t tell my child what to eat.”
These two extremes are typical, says Beth Thorson, MS, RD, director of child nutrition programs for the Leander, Texas, Independent School District. “Keep in mind, it’s a relatively small number of folks making a lot of noise on either extreme of the issue. They may be the most vocal, but being loud doesn’t make their opinion the majority opinion.” Thorson says the bigger hurdle is getting parents to care about a school wellness policy enough to get involved at all.
“I always try to compromise with parents,” Cavallaro says. If a parent is pushing for all organic vegetables on the menu, for example, Cavallaro might investigate partnering with an area farmer to provide locally grown vegetables on the menu once a week. “I feel it is my responsibility to educate the parents on the feasibility of what they want to happen in the school. All organic produce is a great long-term goal, but where is this school right now? I tell parents we can feasibly do certain things right now and then work with them to figure out some achievable goals down the line,” says Cavallaro.
Using Methods That Work
Communication, education and creating an atmosphere that encourages an exchange of ideas related to school programs and activities all are essential, says Melissa Pflugh, MS, RD, a nutritionist with Healthy Schools Healthy Families Coalition (HSHF). HSHF works with underserved NewYork City elementary students and their families in Harlem and Washington Heights on school-based initiatives to improve health.
Pflugh says parents initially felt the schools were putting their children on diets. “Once we explained we were not, but we were making these changes at school to improve their child’s health and help prevent them from getting diseases down the road, parents got on board,” Pflugh says. “A large majority of the parents have diabetes and they are afraid their children will also get diabetes.” Focusing on a preventive health message versus a weight message made all the difference in effective communications and resulted in a significant participation of families in the program.
Parent wellness programs are a key part of bringing healthy habits children learn in school into the home. HSHF offers programs ranging from cooking workshops to belly dancing classes to help improve the health of the entire family. Zoila Del-Villar, MS, a program coordinator with HSHF, started a farmer’s market at a school where families can purchase fresh, high-quality produce that isn’t available in their neighborhood bodegas and supermarkets. Potluck dinners among the parents and families allow themto try new fruits and vegetables that may not be familiar to them and encourages the sharing of healthy recipes and tips.
Developing an atmosphere of trust is also vital, adds Kat Soltanmorad, RD, Network for Healthy California Coordinator with the Center for Nutrition and Physical Activity at Orange Unified School District in Southern California. “Before you can start teaching, you need to build trust with the parents,” she says. Her center has an open-door policy that invites all parents to the table to express concerns and ask questions. Nutrition educators attend PTSA meetings, school site parent meetings and the like to make sure they are accessible to families.
Marilyn McSpiritt-Guzio, MS, RD, director of food and nutrition services for Roxbury, N.J., Township schools, has found explaining her credentials as a registered dietitian provides her with authority among parents, who recognize her as the nutrition expert and are more willing to listen and accept wellness initiatives.
Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD, who volunteers on the wellness committee at her children’s elementary school in Reading, Mass., has found couching recommendations for healthier eating in terms of research is useful in diffusing tense situations where parents may have varying–and strong–opinions. “Using research to back up school nutrition and wellness recommendations takes me out of the ‘food police’ role and keeps discussions neutral, since it is all based on the science.”