The Dannon Institute encourages superintendents to give students healthy meal and snack options.

As childhood obesity rates continue to rise, and as First Lady Michelle Obama promotes her “Let’s Move” campaign to encourage children and families to live active, healthy lifestyles, student health is at the forefront of parents’ and teachers’ concerns.

Many companies, in turn, now focus on helping educators incorporate healthy living and healthy choices into classroom lessons and administrative decisions.

“There are a lot of organizations with the objective of trying to make healthier students,” said Leslie Lytle, a board member at the Dannon Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to nutrition. “A lot of them work through teachers, giving them information to use in their classrooms and pass on to their students. We wanted to take a different tack, because we thought there was another area that was being underserved.”

That area proved to be the larger school environment. Dannon Institute researchers realized that teachers and students might not always have control over the choices that can improve their daily health regimen.

“It’s not the teacher who controls the food in the vending machine, it’s whoever is charge of the vending contract. It’s not the teacher who controls if there’s adequate physical education time built into the school schedule, it’s the principal or some other committee,” said Lytle. “We really believe this environmental piece is incredibly important, and the big hole that we saw in that environmental piece is that the ultimate decision maker at the school district is the superintendent.”

As a result, the Dannon Institute has tried to make health issues a priority with superintendents, writing brief tip sheets and minute papers that address their importance.

“We try to work with school superintendents to help them first realize or embrace the idea that school wellness is a critical issue that impacts not only the health of students, but how they do in school,” said Lytle. “We know that students who come to school hungry or don’t eat well will miss more school, have greater absenteeism, and can’t concentrate. We try to focus on the fact that it’s not just about [school] wellness just for the sake of wellness, but also meets their academic goals as well.”