May 20, 2009

Many Kentucky schools have implemented healthy nutrition practices since 2002, according to preliminary findings of the 2008 School Nutrition Survey led by Janet Tietyen, food and nutrition specialist with the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.

"We are very proud of the progress Kentucky communities are making to become places where it's easier to live a healthy life," she said. "In the past six years, Kentucky schools have made tremendous strides toward a better environment for healthy eating and active living."

Childhood and adolescent obesity are growing concerns in America. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the number of overweight youth between the ages of 6 and 19 nearly tripled to 16 percent of the population between 1980 and 2002. To help combat this statistic, federal and state governments passed legislation mandating federally funded schools have a school wellness plan in place.

Public schools across the state were surveyed about their nutritional environment in 2002 and again in 2008. Family and consumer sciences extension agents collected data from their county's schools for the study.

"This is a good example of a UK project that fulfills all three areas of our land-grant mission:  teaching, research, and extension," Tietyen said.  "With the Kentucky school nutrition survey project, Kentucky communities, higher education and discovery of new ideas are all enhanced.  We're learning about ourselves, educating new leaders, and exploring novel ways to take better care of ourselves."

Preliminary results show a decrease in the number of schools giving their students vending machine access and using food as a reward, especially at elementary and middle schools. In 2002, vending machines were readily found and accessible to students in 44 percent of the state's elementary schools, 88 percent of middle schools and 97 percent of high schools. By 2008, vending machine numbers declined and included only 27 percent of elementary schools, 80 percent of middle schools and 93 percent of high schools.

 Schools with vending have lowered the number of machines in the building by almost one-third.  In 2002, some schools had as many as 29 vending machines in the facility. The highest number of vending machines a school had in 2008 was 20.

The number of Kentucky elementary and middle schools using unhealthy foods, such as candy, pizza, pop and ice cream, as rewards also is lower. Data from 2002 showed about 90 percent of Kentucky elementary and middle schools used food as a reward.  These numbers are now down to 69 percent of elementary schools and 76 percent of middle schools in 2008.

UK Cooperative Extension offers several programs to encourage healthy lifestyles both in and out of the classroom. Students can participate in nutrition education programs offered during and after school. Teachers can join Weight: The Reality Series, a 10-week, weight loss program that teaches participants about topics, such as portion control, benefits of eating breakfast and physical activity options, with the goal of helping them eliminate unhealthy habits and develop healthy ones.

In 2010, UK Cooperative Extension will have a new wellness curriculum for youth that will go along with the new U.S. Dietary Guidelines, which will also be released next year.

More information about local extension wellness programs can be obtained at county extension offices.