Overweight kids: Schools take action
Erykah Martin's lunch is a model of nutrition: a lettuce and carrot salad, an apple, a granola bar, and (the one kid-like concession) chocolate milk.Skip to next paragraph
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Salad is the second-grader's favorite lunch item, she says, "'cause all the things you put in it is healthy and good." She wrinkles her nose and shakes her black braids at the idea of hot dogs, the cafeteria's hot lunch option that day.
The salad bar at Chicago's Nettelhorst Elementary School, where Erykah goes, is one way the school is promoting healthier choices for students. It also teaches nutrition, has an after-school cooking program, has reinstituted recess, and has dance and physical education classes - the sorts of programs needed at far more schools, children's health advocates say, given the rise in childhood obesity.
The trends can seem alarming - one recent study showed that 17 percent of children and adolescents were overweight in 2004, up from 14 percent just five years earlier. But more and more, schools are starting to address the problem.
By this summer, they must meet a federal mandate for a comprehensive wellness plan. Recently introduced federal legislation would require new minimum nutrition standards for school lunches. Numerous states are passing laws aimed at better food and more physical activity for students. A few individual schools, like Nettelhorst, are also taking the initiative.
"I'm very encouraged by what is occurring in schools," says Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. "One can just see the landscape changing.... At the moment, it's still a minority of schools, but the number is growing and the state legislatures are getting involved in requiring schools to change."
The problem, he and others agree, is critical. One recent New York study showed that 1 in 4 kids in the city's Head Start program was obese by the age of 2, and 40 percent of the Head Start kids were either obese or overweight. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn't have an "obese" designation for children. But its National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey - considered the gold standard of weight data because it uses actual measures instead of self-reporting - showed that 17 percent of children between ages 2 and 19 were overweight in 2004. Another 17 percent were at risk of becoming so.
Studies show that overweight children are highly likely to become obese adults, who have an elevated risk of many health problems. And America's growing obesity rate is a prime reason for rapidly rising healthcare costs, health experts say.
Schools have become the major legislative target for obvious reasons: Kids eat many meals there - often breakfast and lunch - and policy can regulate schools in a way that's impossible with families.
"Schools alone didn't cause the problem, and schools alone can't solve the problem, but we'd be hard-pressed to solve it without schools," says Howell Wechsler, director of the Division of Adolescent and School Health at the Centers for Disease Control.