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Mary Kate Henson
Credit: Mark Hancock

“Childhood obesity in Oklahoma is on the rise in all areas, but in zip codes with lower incomes, lower accessibility to grocery stores and low walkability, poor health trends are even higher,” said Mary Kate Henson, health promotion specialist at the Oklahoma City-County Health Department, which established the “Wellness Now” policy.

That includes the area around Millwood, 6724 N. Martin Luther King Ave. The schools are in the 73111 zip code, an area with high rates of chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.

The brunt of the wellness program involves regulating foods that compete with the school-provided meals. Under the changes, such items now must be a fruit, vegetable, whole grain or related combination with specific calorie, sodium, sugar and fat guidelines. That means no sugar-sweetened beverages, cookies, candy or the like.

While that portion of the policy is based on nutritional standards released by the Institute of Medicine and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Millwood policy goes further, calling for healthy, nonfood fundraisers and healthy food preparation training for staff.

“Teachers are also asked to not use candy as a reward in the classroom,” said Henson. “Kids respond to candy, but we’re going to have to get out of our comfort zone if we’re going to change obesity and poor health.”

The policy also has daily physical activity requirements, such as incorporating exercise into classroom curricula and ensuring that students be moderately to vigorously active for at least 50 percent of physical education class time.

Millwood Superintendent Cecilia Robinson said the new policy also helps send a message to parents that there are expectations for healthy living.

“I think it will be an adjustment for the kids, but they’ll be fine. The biggest adjustment is to get parents on board, especially regarding snacks,” she said. “The culture shift limiting the types of items that can be brought in to school from outside is a huge step.”

The prospect of healthier children, Robinson noted, has implications for classroom performance.

“Research tells us if children are healthy, they’re likely to do better in school,” she said.

The Oklahoma City-County Health Department is working with most major school districts in the county and recently established a partial policy in Oklahoma City Public Schools.

“I’m here to help these schools with ideas and support,” said Henson. “Millwood is the first school to pass our complete policy.”

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