The Trenton Board of Education has recently adopted a new comprehensive school wellness policy that has highlighted the importance of the Safe Routes to School project (SRTS) in a significant way. The new policy was passed on January 20, 2015 to great acclaim from New Jersey’s walk and bike advocates as well as other organizations focused on improving the health of children. As previously reported by the New Jersey Partnership for Healthy Kids, the new provision to the wellness plan reflects a stronger commitment to exploring environmental improvements that would make it safer and simpler for Trenton students to walk and bike to school. A District Wellness Council with representatives from all Trenton schools will assist in implementing the policy.
School wellness plans are ubiquitous around the country, but SRTS principles have not traditionally been an included element in their framework. As characterized by the SRTS National Partnership, the creation of school wellness policies are mandatory for local education agencies that participate in the Federal School Meal Program. The intent of a school wellness policy is to set goals for physical activity, nutrition and nutrition education in order to alleviate the growing obesity epidemic, encourage healthy eating habits and promote the benefits of exercise. Those goals are then incorporated into a policy designed by local stakeholders and coordinated by a group effort of parents, students and school officials.
The inclusion of the SRTS mission and goals in school wellness plans has been repeatedly advocated for because active transportation to school provides well documented benefits towards a child’s health and mental performance in the classroom. The SRTS project has also been thought of as a natural fit into school wellness plans due to its similar emphasis on diverse stakeholder collaboration in order to implement the goals of a school policy. Therefore, the provision for SRTS that was approved by the Trenton Board of Education is an important first step towards a better future for the city’s school children. After all, Trenton grapples with some of the worst childhood obesity rates in the nation, with 49% of the youngest Trenton children being overweight or obese compared to 21% nationally.
Since Trenton’s situation is still emblematic of a national childhood obesity epidemic, many are hopeful that the SRTS provision in this school wellness plan will lead toward more widespread emphasis of active transportation in other plans. “Trenton’s District Wellness policy will help students make physical activity and nutrition a regular part of their daily lives,” said Marissa Davis, project manager of the New Jersey Partnership for Healthy Kids-Trenton, which is a statewide program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “This is a tremendous step in the right direction toward bringing and instilling a culture of health and wellness to the students and staff of Trenton.”
The New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA) is reviewing Trenton’s policy and may promote the model to be used nationwide. What is certain is that incremental policy changes such as what has been approved for Trenton schools will be necessary steps toward alleviating childhood obesity and providing a safe environment for school children to be active, healthy and attentive inside and out of the classroom.