April 4, 2008

A survey circulating through 471 Kentucky public schools will help University of Kentucky family and consumer sciences researchers evaluate the schools’ nutrition and wellness environments.

This is the second time the Kentucky School Nutrition Environment Survey has circulated through the state, with the help of UK Cooperative Extension family and consumer sciences agents. The original survey in 2002 was the outgrowth of a task force set up by then-Lt. Gov. Steve Henry to examine the issue of childhood obesity and the growing prevalence of type-2 diabetes among children.

“That first survey was helpful in providing people the information they needed to look at policies that might encourage a healthier school environment,” said Janet Tietyen, UK associate extension professor in nutrition and food sciences, a member of the task force.

The 2002 survey had questions pertaining to school vending machines, school stores and physical activity. The current survey will re-examine those areas to see if changes have occurred over the past six years, as well as include questions concerning wellness programs for employees.

“What we are really concerned about is, does the environment support not only a healthy weight for kids, but for the people that work there,” Tietyen said. “As a society, we’re really starting to focus more on schools as worksite wellness venues. Adults need supportive environments, too!”

Kentucky is already well ahead of the curve in many areas, according to the latest two report cards on school nutrition policy issued by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. In both 2006 and 2007, Kentucky received an A- and was ranked highest in the nation for school food policies.

In a letter sent to family and consumer sciences extension agents, UK School of Human Environmental Sciences Director Ann Vail and Laura Stephenson, UK family consumer sciences extension program leader, said, “We are at the head of the class and want to stay there as we strive toward proficiency by 2014 (a reference to the deadline for proficiency in reading, writing and mathematics mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act)….This (survey) is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate Kentucky’s continued progress on an issue of national concern, a healthy weight for our children.”

Tietyen has high hopes for the results of the current survey, which she expects by the end of April.

“I anticipate that we are going to look very good, because great progress has really been made since that first survey,” she said.

That progress has occurred in several areas, including offering better choices in vending machines. Tietyen said that one county used data from the 2002 survey to negotiate healthier vending contracts. Companies who bid on the new vending machine contracts were awarded more points for providing healthier choices that were priced better or the same as unhealthy choices. Some counties were able to bring in milk dispensing machines that quickly became popular with the students.

When the new survey results are collected, graduate students in the UK Department of Nutrition and Food Science will enter and compare the data to the earlier survey, as well as examine the language of school wellness policies to see how that relates to the school environment. These analyses will determine whether Kentucky schools are making strides in promoting a healthy atmosphere for their students and employees and whether policies could be written differently to result in a healthier environment.

Tietyen said the strength of the survey is a result of the participation of family and consumer sciences extension agents.

“The agents are such an integral part of their communities that they have relationships with the schools and with the people in the community,” she said. “Completing the surveys takes time, skill and dedication to healthier communities and agents are ideal professionals to do this work."

“It’s an illustration of what can happen when there’s good synergy among all three mission areas of the land grant (university),” she said, “that UK’s reach is in all 120 counties and that people in Kentucky really do care about children, and they really will change very quickly in order to do the right thing for kids.”

The study is partially funded by the nonprofit organization Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

News Topics: