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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Healthy Steps for Healthy Lives: Fighting Childhood Obesity

By Peter DeWitt — August 09, 2012 7 min read
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If you have ever stood in a school cafeteria during lunchtime you understand that many of our students are eating unhealthy lunches. The unhealthy lunches are not just the ones they bring from home; some schools are responsible for serving food that is high in fat and sugar to students. In addition, the portions that students eat are too big. Too often, America believes in super sizing many of their meals.

As much as eating small snacks throughout the day is considered a healthy alternative to three square meals a day, it will not help students if all of those snacks are covered with chocolate, sugar or have jelly in the middle. We have an epidemic happening in America and it has to do with the way our students are eating. Many organizations are jumping on board to help end it, and the National Education Association Health Information Network (NEA HIN), which is the 501c3 nonprofit arm of the National Education Association, has partnered with Nestle in the United States to change the way children eat and increase the amount they play.

Nestle provided NEA HIN the freedom they needed to make sure they could help fight childhood obesity. It’s important to remember that although many organizations use clever media to help sell those snacks to children, we are responsible for what we put in our mouths and parents are responsible for what they buy their children. We all need to find a healthy balance in our nutrition.

Interview With NEA HIN
The NEA HIN, in partnership with Nestle in the U.S., has developed a new resource for teachers, parents and students called Healthy Steps for Healthy Lives. This resource focuses on healthy eating, exercise and a strong mind, all of which will help develop a healthy lifestyle.

Nora Howley, a former teacher and NEA HIN’s Manager of Programs, and Lisa Creighton, NEA HIN’s Senior Program Coordinator provided information about their partnership.

PD: Why did the NEA HIN take on this initiative with Nestle?

NH: NEA HIN has really made childhood obesity one of our main priorities. We see the extent of the problem and how it disproportionally impacts minority students and students of color.

When we were approached by Nestle to be a partner in the revision of Healthy Steps for Healthy Lives Program, we saw the opportunity to work with a partner who was willing to help create classroom based resources that teachers could use which were linked to academic standards. These were pilot tested by real teachers in real classrooms and were designed to build the knowledge and skills of children to create healthy lives.

PD: One of the resources you offer specifically addresses the lack of physical activity our students get? How can you help influence schools that are opting out of recess for more “academic” time?

NH: We really take two approaches. First, we share with our members and the rest of the educational community that there is no research that shows that decreasing recess time will improve academic outcomes. However, the research does show that students who are able to be active throughout the day do perform better academically.

Recognizing that there are many realities in schools, the Healthy Steps for Healthy Lives is organized around the premises of Think Healthy, Eat Healthy and Move Healthy. In all of these areas, we incorporate physical activity into the lesson plans to help kids move during the day.

One of the great examples is Lesson 12 which is called Move it, Move it. The lesson is meant to teach the kids the concepts of sedentary, moderate and vigorous physical activity and have them actually practice those concepts as they work through the activity. For example, a student would have to decide whether walking the dog is a sedentary, moderate or vigorous physical activity. If an activity is sedentary they have to stop, if it is moderate they may have to walk in place and if it is a vigorous physical activity they will have to jog or play in place. It’s about reinforcing the learning of concepts with skills that help kids become active.

LC: To support Nora’s statement about the relationship between academic performance and academic achievement, recently there was a review of 14 studies that was published in the journal Archives of Pediatrics of Adolescent Medicine. The review showed that there is a significant positive relationship between physical activity and academic performance. Moreover, physical activity throughout the day leads to better brain functioning. If kids are active they perform better.

PD: Good nutrition begins at home. Why do you think schools have to take on the role of nutrition educator?

NH: At NEA HIN, we recognize that food is already a part of the school environment and school programs. We know that the role of schools is to build the skills and knowledge for our students in a wide range of areas and that includes health, and therefore includes making good nutrition choices.

We also think that as changes come to the school nutrition environment, and schools are making more healthy choices readily available to students, students need to get the practice and skills to transfer what they learn about healthy eating into other environments like their home and community.

One of the things that NEA HIN and Nestle built into the program based on the input from teachers who piloted it, was a family engagement component. Good nutritional practices should be delivered to the schools but parents need support as well so they can reinforce those messages or learn them themselves. The family engagement section of Healthy Steps for Healthy Lives gives teachers a resource that students can use to engage their families as they are moving through the program.

NEA HIN is dedicated to the success of students at school and in life. With childhood obesity being the problem that it is building good nutrition habits and building physical activity skills is at the heart of that success. Otherwise as a nation we have a health problem that will impair the quality of life for our students and our economy and our nation as a whole.

PD: What are some of the most important steps schools can take to help end childhood obesity?

LC: Obesity is a very serious issue in the United States. Today, nearly 1 in 3 children and adolescents are overweight or obese, which is more than 23 million kids and teenagers. And among those 23 million kids, minorities are disproportionately affected.

If you look at the statistics, 38% of Mexican-American children and 35% of African-American children are overweight or obese as compared to about 31% of white children. So looking at different communities and how overweight and obesity affects different minority groups is especially important, as is trying to educate teachers and parents on how to help prevent childhood obesity.

In addition, we are trying to help educate students at a younger age because we know that being overweight or obese as a child can have long term effects to one’s physical and emotional health, and can shorten their life expectancy.

All that being said, NEA HIN recommends a three-pronged approach for schools to combat childhood obesity. The first approach is to improve the quality of food served in schools. This can be done by supporting federal changes to school food resulting from the Healthy, Hungry Free Kids Act of 2010.

Some of the changes to school meals will happen at the start of the 2012 school year, requiring schools to provide more fruits and vegetables, and reduce the amount of saturated fat and sodium in school breakfasts and lunches. In addition, schools can support and implement policies to ensure that only healthy snacks and drinks are sold is school stores, vending machines and on cafeteria a la carte lines.

The Second approach is to ensure that there is regular physical activity during the school day for all students. This can be done through a combination of recess, physical education and incorporating physical activity into classroom lessons, like Move It, Move It lessons Nora mentioned earlier in the interview.

The third and final approach is to partner with other organizations within the community like Parks and recreation departments, local governments and parents and community groups to coordinate efforts. Solving the childhood obesity epidemic with take a comprehensive effort among the entire community and the more each group works together, the more positive change can happen (end of interview).

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.