A new report from RTI International examines an emerging trend that uses state policy to promote healthy eating and physical activity in afterschool and other out-of-school-time (OST) programs. Based on stakeholder interviews and state case studies, the authors conclude that the state policy approach holds significant promise if it avoids creating unfunded mandates.
Jean Wiecha and Kristen Capogrossi of RTI International, in "Using State Laws and Regulations to Promote Healthy Eating and Physical Activity in Afterschool Programs," explain that the National AfterSchool Association Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Standards, developed by HOST in 2011, have offered comprehensive guidance to the OST field on how to promote healthy eating and physical activity. Large national organizations have adopted some or all of these standards in their programs--but recent studies suggest that about 40 percent of NAA members still have not heard of them. State or local laws present one option to increase awareness, uptake, and implementation of these standards,
Wiecha and Capogrossi therefore interviewed nine experts who were knowledgeable about the NAA HEPA Standards and active in national OST policy, advocacy, and service issues. They also conducted case studies in California and North Carolina, which have had recent experience with legislation in this area. They concluded:
Under the right circumstances and when crafted the right way, state policy approaches have the potential to result in faster, more equitable, and more thorough improvements to healthy eating and physical activity in OST settings compared with the status quo focus on private-sector dissemination and training efforts. Regulation that uses incentives and voluntary participation could result in increasing the number of OST programs promoting health among children and their families in low-resource communities. In addition, regulation (especially when integrated with existing OST regulation) could serve to elevate healthy eating and physical activity to the same level of importance as other regulated OST quality content areas.
At the same time, the authors caution that "policy efforts should proceed carefully in order to allow the field the opportunity to identify which best practices in policy design maximize benefit and minimize risk," and suggest that different states may wish to move forward at different speeds. They add, "Policy efforts should explicitly identify and mitigate the risk of creating unfunded mandates, which may have the unintended consequence of widening quality gaps between high- and low-resources sites or, worse, drive low-resource sites out of business by imposing costs and other burdens involved with the improvement process."
The report was commissioned by the Healthy Eating Research Program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.