KEARNEY - The University of Nebraska at Kearney could play an integral role in helping Nebraska schools reduce childhood obesity.

LB447, which was introduced in the Nebraska Legislature by state Sen. Bill Avery, would tax soda and create the Nebraska Healthy Kids Fund, which aims to help schools implement wellness programs.

If the Nebraska Healthy Kids Fund receives funding, UNK will be responsible for collecting, analyzing and developing school-based reports for weight and fitness data.

"It's taking the best practices from what we've learned here in Kearney as what seems to have been effective in decreasing the prevalence of overweight and obesity and preventing excessive weight gain and trying to implement those strategies in other schools across the state," said Kate Heelan, professor of health, physical education and recreation and the Kearney Public Schools wellness program evaluator.

UNK has worked with KPS collecting weight and fitness data on students.

KPS has implemented new physical education curriculum, put salad bars into schools, began offering a wellness program for overweight families and more.

Lincoln Public Schools also has implemented a wellness program and has been collecting data.

Dr. Bob Rauner, chair of the Nebraska Medical Association's public health committee and co-chair of the Nebraska Academy of Family Physicians' Legislative Committee, has been working with Lincoln Public Schools to reduce childhood obesity with the help of a Carol M. White Physical Education Program grant, the same grant KPS used to implement its wellness program.

"This bill came out as a way to sustain what we're doing in Lincoln and Kearney, but also roll it out to the rest of the state," Rauner said.

"We want to make it happen everywhere because it's working."

Rauner said every school district in Nebraska has a wellness policy, but there isn't a mandate that says the schools have to implement wellness programming.

"In Lincoln and Kearney, it (wellness policy) didn't just sit on the shelf, we actually did things to change the policy," he said.

In Lincoln, some schools had eliminated recess to create more time for academics, Rauner said.

"Kids need physical activity, and it actually helps their academics when they're more active," Rauner said. "Now, all schools have to have recess, they have to have physical activity breaks."

Data collection will be the first step to help school districts across the state implement their own wellness policies.

If the bill is approved, beginning in 2014, UNK will receive $500,000 a year as part of the Nebraska Healthy Kids Fund.

The funds will be used to develop and maintain a statewide database for weight and fitness data on students in Nebraska public schools.

"We have data here in Kearney that's been very effective in helping us to secure grants and also to be able to track over time to see whether or not our programs are effective," Heelan said. "We'd like to be able to get that data at a statewide level so we can help other communities to be able to see where they stand."

Having students' weight and fitness data allows school districts to determine areas that need improvement in the schools' wellness programming, apply for grant funding and seek community support, she said.

"Having the data is really what has gotten people's attention to start making change," Heelan said. "Everybody knows that there's an obesity problem across the nation with children, but until you put it in a personal situation, until it's right here in our community and there are kids with health risks and there are kids that need help right here in our community, it doesn't seem to personally impact."

Since 2006, there has been a 15 percent decrease in obesity rates among students. LPS saw a 6 percent decrease in obesity rates over two years.

Heelan and UNK Human Performance Lab Coordinator Bryce Abbey developed a web application to help schools calculate BMI and create aggregate data for reporting. The application, which is used by KPS and some surrounding schools, will be used throughout the state.

UNK will provide training to school districts on data collection processes. UNK will use the data to prepare an annual report on obesity and fitness among students.

"We will also provide annual professional development opportunities for the school districts to learn more about what kind of person they need to hire for wellness coordinators," Heelan said.

Heelan and UNK professor Todd Bartee will work with Nebraska schools on how to implement and evaluate best practices for school-based obesity prevention interventions.

In addition to funding data collection, the soda tax will help pay for schools to implement wellness programs.

Beginning in 2014, 70 percent of the remaining funds from the Nebraska Healthy Kids Fund will go to the Nebraska Department of Education.

The first $100,000 will be used each year to monitor compliance by school districts and to help school districts in the development and implementation of school wellness policies. $10,000 will be distributed to each school district.

The remaining amount will be distributed to school districts based on the number of students in each district.

In order for a district to continue receiving those funds, it must hire a wellness coordinator, involve a public health entity in its wellness programming, create a wellness policy and implement a wellness program. The wellness policy must include evaluation of weight and fitness data. The date must be reported to UNK annually.

The soda tax will also go to the Department of Health and Human Services and will be allocated to public health departments.

The funds must be used to organize community efforts relating to child health and obesity. The funds will also be distributed to community-based organizations that work on issues related to breast-feeding, child care or school-based health efforts.

The next hearing on LB447 is March 15.