When we launched Let’s Move! — a nationwide initiative to take on the challenge of childhood obesity — I wondered in the back of my mind whether it was really possible to make a difference. I knew how serious this problem is: Nearly one in three of our children are overweight or obese, at risk for illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer that cost our economy billions of dollars each year. I also knew the conventional wisdom on this issue: This problem is so big, so entrenched, that no matter what we do, we’ll never be able to solve it.
But since we launched Let’s Move!, we have seen a new conversation about the health and well-being of our kids. And over the past two years, people from every corner of this country who care about our children are stepping up and proving the conventional wisdom wrong.
Major American food manufacturers are cutting 1.5 trillion calories from their products, and national chains like SuperValu and Walmart are building and expanding stores to sell fresh food in 1,500 underserved communities. The Darden restaurant chain, which owns Olive Garden and Red Lobster, is cutting calories and salt and packing their kids’ menus with healthier options. Congregations are starting exercise ministries for families and summer nutrition programs for children. Mayors are refurbishing parks and sidewalks and working with residents to plant community gardens. Athletes and celebrities from Drew Brees to Michelle Kwan to Beyoncé are serving as role models, encouraging our kids to get active.
Teachers, administrators, and other education leaders in particular have been taking action as well, rethinking the food you serve in lunchrooms, developing nutrition education curricula for your classrooms, and coming up with creative ways to help kids be active during the school day.
It’s not surprising that our educators have been taking the lead on this issue. You’ve been seeing the effects of childhood obesity in your classrooms and school systems for years. Studies have shown that nutrition and exercise can affect students’ performance on standardized tests, and obese kids are more likely to miss more than two weeks of school during an academic year. Long before we ever started Let’s Move!, teachers were seeing students who didn’t have the nutrition they needed to concentrate on school work. School counselors were seeing the emotional consequences of obesity in the form of depression and low self-esteem. Coaches were seeing more and more kids struggling to keep up in gym class and school sports.
In addition, more than 31 million American children participate in federal school meal programs; many of them consume up to half their daily calories at school. And the nutrition education you provide is often the only guidance they get on making healthy decisions about what they eat.
So, every day with the food you serve, the lessons you teach, and the example you set, educators are shaping our children’s habits and preferences and affecting the choices they’ll make for the rest of their lives.
A Joint Effort
That’s why through Let’s Move!, we’ve worked hard to support your efforts. We’re working to install salad bars in 6,000 schools and, through our Chefs Move to Schools program, more than 3,400 professional chefs have signed up to help local schools improve their menus. Congress has passed historic legislation to provide healthier school meals, and three of our nation’s largest school food service companies have committed to cutting fat and sugar and serving more whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables. Over the past two years, we’ve gone from just 625 schools participating in the USDA’s HealthierUS School Challenge — a program recognizing schools that serve healthy meals and provide opportunities for physical activity — to nearly 3,000 schools this year. And more than 1 million children have earned Presidential Active Lifestyle Awards (PALA) for doing an hour of physical activity a day, five days a week, for six weeks.
We’ve made important progress over the past two years. But we still have a long way to go, and educators have a critically important role to play in the years ahead. We know that budgets are tight and resources are scarce, but, every day in schools of all sizes across the country, educators are getting creative.
You’re partnering with farmers to get more fresh produce into your school meals. You’re holding taste tests and recipe contests and fitness competitions. You’re opening your school gyms on weekends, and incorporating nutrition education into subjects ranging from math to science to art class.
Every day, educators are showing us that it doesn’t take a lot of money or resources to help our kids stay healthy. What it does take is effort, imagination, and a commitment to our children’s futures. So, I am grateful for your hard work and dedication to our next generation. I am hopeful that educators and administrators across this country will continue — and expand — these efforts. And I am confident that if we keep coming together and working together on behalf of our kids, we’ll be able to give them everything they need for the happy, healthy futures they deserve.
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A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2012 edition of Education Week as Let’s Keep Moving