Health begins in the context of our everyday lives, including in the places we live, eat, work and play. Health is not just about the absence of disease, but also the physical, mental and social wellbeing (Scully, 2004). Many factors are involved to influence the health of communities, such as social, cultural, economic and physical environments. My goal is to advocate for healthy school environments. Children of all ethnicities and socio-economic groups spend most of their waking hours together in schools, and therefore, schools are ideal environments for the promotion and establishment of healthy living in children. I believe that advocating for a healthy school community involves promoting: 1) healthy eating and 2) daily physical activity.
1. Healthy eating
A healthy diet during childhood supports optimal health, growth and cognitive development, as well as aid in the prevention of chronic illness later in life (Van Cauwenberghe et al., 2010). Because children spend many hours per day in school, a significant amount of their total daily calories are consumed at school (Wechsler, Devereaux, Davis & Collins, 2000). Students can obtain low-nutrient products such as chips, ice creams, carbonated beverages and sweetened fruit juices in school cafeterias, vending machines and school stores (Wechsler et al., 2000). For example, vending machines were highly accessible in my high school. We had five of them in the cafeteria and one more in the front lobby. My friends and I regularly purchased snacks and beverages such as chips, chocolates, and sodas from the machines mainly because they were inexpensive. I merely cared about taste (ie: sweet, salty) and affordability, and the poor nutritional values of these (unhealthy) products never crossed my mind. As I grew older I understood the negative impacts and concerns of low nutrient, energy-dense foods. Now, I am more cautious of what I consume because I want to live a healthful life. I gathered information from health magazines, websites, friends and family. In addition, the food and nutrition courses at Ryerson University further expanded my wisdom on food and its influence on health.
I believe promoting school food policies that encourage healthy eating is one element of improving school communities. The Alberta Project Promoting active Living & healthy Eating (APPLE) Schools program has applied this policy, and created positive outcomes in negating poor health patterns while creating healthier school environments in the province of Alberta (APPLE Schools, n.d.). The policy contains guidelines on foods offered in school meals, fundraising and as rewards (APPLE Schools, n.d.). School meals that are offered in breakfast or lunch programs must be nutritious and appealing to children, meet the minimum nutritional requirements, be served in neat and pleasant settings, provide various fruits and vegetables, and offer whole grain choices (APPLE Schools, n.d.). Studies have linked healthy eating with readiness to learn, academic performance and reduced emotional problems (Alberta Health Services, n.d.). Academic performance and cognitive development is influenced by nutrition. Children who are malnourished have significantly poorer attendance, have difficulty in focusing and are less likely to have more energy as compared to their well-nourished classmates (Alberta Health Services, n.d.). In addition, unhealthy eating habits can contribute to the increasing rates of type 2 diabetes, and childhood obesity and overweight (Alberta Health Services, n.d.). For example, statistics have shown a link between the consumption of sweetened beverages with obesity in children, in which an extra serving of pop each day may increase a child’s risk of developing obesity by 60% (Alberta Health Services, n.d.).
There are additional approaches that schools can follow to achieve a healthy school environment for students. For example, they should make healthy foods readily available. This