Healthiest Next Generation gears up for next push

In its third year, children’s health initiative to update recommendations

Opioid abuse, child care standards, the legal age for tobacco use and nutrition education are some of the topics garnering interest this year as state leaders work to ensure children don’t lag behind when it comes to their health.

As part of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Healthiest Next Generation initiative, a group of legislators, educators and health advocates presented its latest recommendations to Inslee this week. Inslee launched the initiative in September 2014 in response to concerns by health experts that this generation of American children might face shorter lifespans than their parents.

North Thurston Public Schools Superintendent Debra Clemens talks about the importance of access to nutritious food in schools and nutrition education for parents while attending Monday’s meeting of the Governor’s Council for the Healthiest Next Generation in Olympia. Washington Secretary of Health John Wiesman, standing in the background, moderated the conversation. (Official Governor’s Office photo)

Since then, Washington has made significant improvements for children as part of the initiative, including revising fitness guidelines in schools, awarding Healthy Kids-Healthy Schools grants, investing in outdoor-learning opportunities and the No Child Left Inside grant program, and launching the Complete Eats program, which helps families on tight budgets afford nutritious groceries.

The Governor’s Council for the Healthiest Next Generation meets annually to share its recommendations, which it prepares with input from the Community Health Advisory Committee, Department of Health, Department of Early Learning, Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Governor’s Office. Policy and budget advisers will use the new recommendations as they prepare for the 2018 legislative session.

“Of all the things we can do as a state, improving children’s health is one of the most important, because Washington’s future depends the health of our children,” Inslee said. “That means that we must prioritize physical activity, nutrition and substance abuse prevention.”

Gov. Jay Inslee speaks to members of the Governor’s Council for the Healthiest Next Generation on Monday in Olympia. The council made several policy and budget recommendations to the governor about improving the health of Washington’s children. (Official Governor’s Office photo)

This year’s Healthiest Next Generation recommendations fall into three focus areas: early learning, schools and communities. Some of the recommendations expand upon initiative goals from previous years while others are brand new.

Recommendations this year include:

  • Raising the legal minimum age from 18 to 21 for purchasing tobacco products such as cigarettes and vaping products.
  • Encouraging schools and state agencies to integrate evidence-based social and emotional health and trauma-informed education to reduce the effects of adverse childhood experiences.
  • Increasing access to nutritious food in schools by expanding effective programs statewide, such as the Farm to School, school gardens, Smarter Lunchrooms and Breakfast after the Bell programs.
  • Providing more training and consultation for Early Achievers coaches, who work with child care providers to improve nutrition and physical activity in early learning programs.

Washington Secretary of Health John Wiesman moderated Monday’s conversation among Healthiest Next Generation council members. Participants discussed which recommendations they hoped would rise to the top of the list.

Paul Johns, a former Seattle Seahawk, stressed the importance of supporting substance-use-prevention programs in public schools, especially as the state and nation grapple with the opioid crisis.

Former Seattle Seahawks player Paul Johns talks Monday about the opioid epidemic and how it affects youth in Washington during a meeting about the Healthiest Next Generation initiative in Olympia. (Official Governor’s Office photo)

“There is an opioid epidemic going on, and one of the biggest things that we have to not neglect is that our kids are getting into those and starting early,” Johns said. Teachers, school administrators and parents need to educate themselves on how to keep legal drugs, such as painkillers and marijuana, out of kids’ hands, he added.

Johns also stressed that just because adults can legally use recreational marijuana doesn’t mean they should use it in front of youth.

Wiesman agreed.

“The research shows in terms of brain science that the earlier kids are experimenting with drugs of any kind, whether that be alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, that it’s altering the brain chemistry and the brain structure and setting them up for a lifetime of addiction,” Wiesman said. “Substances are much more addictive at those younger ages.”

Other participants discussed the importance of working with child care centers to meet new nutrition and physical activity standards; many are small businesses and need coaching to reach those licensing requirements. Supporting the state’s foster children and coordinating more on mental health care services are other issues that were explored.

Inslee said he looks forward to further honing the recommendations as his budget office drafts a supplemental proposal for the 2018 session, which convenes in January.