In an effort to reverse rising childhood-obesity rates, many of the nation’s top health educators, nutritionists, doctors, and others met here last week to determine how schools should work to slim down some of their students.
Some 550 people representing 49 states convened Oct. 7-8 for what was billed as the first Healthy Schools Summit. The gathering aimed to draw up statewide plans calling for changes—through both legislation and curricula—in nutrition and fitness education.
Former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, the summit’s chairman, told conference participants that obesity “is a silent epidemic.”
“This is not about appearances or cosmetics,” Dr. Satcher said. “This is about health. It’s about how obesity increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.”
Nearly one-third of Americans are defined as being obese, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, and 300,000 die each year because of problems related to obesity, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Furthermore, the percentage of American adolescents who are overweight has tripled in the past 20 years, to 15 percent, according to a recent CDC survey. The study also predicts that seven out of 10 overweight adolescents will eventually become adults with weight problems. That percentage rises to 80 percent if at least one parent is also overweight.
“Overweight” is defined roughly as being 10 to 30 pounds overweight. “Obese” is defined as having a very high amount of fat in relation to lean body mass, or being 30 pounds or more over a healthy body weight. For example, a person who is 5 feet 10 inches tall is overweight at 175 pounds and obese at 209 pounds, according to a body-mass index chart by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Poor nutrition can permanently affect physical growth and cognitive functioning, said Bill Potts-Datema, the director of partnerships for children’s health at Harvard University’s school of public health.
In recent years, some school systems have limited or banned soft drink vending machines and started school breakfast programs, and most all have tried to reduce the percentage of fat in their cafeteria fare.
But because of the nation’s growing emphasis on high-stakes testing, summit participants said, many schools have also reduced recess time and limited after-school sports and other activities. It’s also a common practice for teachers to reward students for good test scores with candy or pizza parties, they noted.
‘Faced With a Conundrum’
Principals are especially hard-pressed to balance the pressure for higher test scores and teaching youngsters healthy eating and exercise habits, said Gerald N. Tirozzi, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of Secondary School Principals and a summit speaker.
“So we’re faced with a conundrum,” he said. “On one hand, principals know the value of nutrition and fitness, but they’re not encouraged or rewarded to be leaders in this area.”
He also criticized the Bush administration’s sweeping “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, which, he said, focuses on raising reading and mathematics achievement, but doesn’t address how nutrition and fitness can affect learning.
“What about the children who come to school hungry?” he said. “What about the children who are poor, who are left behind in nutrition?
“As important as this federal legislation is, it does not address this issue,” said Mr. Tirozzi, who was the assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education during the Clinton administration.
Representatives from the Grocery Manufacturers of America—whose members include food and beverage companies such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Dannon— were also at the conference.
They said they disagreed with efforts to remove soda vending machines from schools. Instead, they said, their emphasis is on educating students about making sensible choices in their meals.
“If you ban certain foods, it gives people the wrong idea,” Stephanie Childs, the association’s manager for public-policy communications, said at the conference. "[Drinking] Coke is a personal choice. Like any choice, you can abuse that. But having a soda isn’t going to sound a death knell.”