With more than 12 million children and adolescents considered overweight or obese, public schools throughout the country are introducing healthier foods and requiring more exercise to combat obesity.
Cindy Powlus, Food Service Director for the Bloomsburg School District, said the district has made two main changes last year regarding the items that are served.
Whole milk has been replaced by one percent and skim milk, and the school offers free water to comply with state laws.
A poll conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and American Viewpoint shows that 80 percent of Americans believe childhood obesity is an important issue that more needs to be invested in to prevent it immediately. Because school plays an important role in children’s lives, creating a healthy school environment can prevent obesity and encourage healthier living at home.
Each school day gives students the opportunity to learn about health and practice healthy behaviors that affect weight, including physical activity and good nutrition. According to the Surgeon General’s Guidelines for a Healthier Nation 2010, well-designed school programs can promote physical activity, healthy eating, reduce the rate of obesity among children and teenagers and improve academic achievement. For these reasons, schools have made changes in its programs in recent years to encourage healthier living.
In the past, school lunch programs have been part to blame for children eating meals high in calories, fat and sugar, but schools throughout the United States are now evaluating their cafeterias’ menu and making the appropriate changes. Some of these changes include adding more whole grain items, fresh fruit and vegetables to the cafeteria’s menu.
According to Powlus, more mandates will be released in January, which will go into effect at the start of the 2012 school year. Although the school has not yet received the details of the mandate in formal writing, Powlus said some of the changes would include adding more whole grains and vegetables, as well as reducing salt intake.
While this is a start, eating healthy by itself is not enough. It is recommended that children and adolescents get two hours per day of vigorous physical activity.
Today, most K-12 level schools require some type of physical education class as a requirement. School physical education classes are required to follow standards from the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, which provide the framework for a quality physical education.
Although standards vary, programs must allow the students to demonstrate the six standards, which include regular participation in physical activity and help children to understand the importance of physical activity.
Children respond best to physical activity when it is fun, so Susan Susan Scheimer, physical education teacher at Memorial Elementary, gets her students involved as soon as they get to class. During class, Scheimer organizes games with two to three people per group, so that all the kids are moving or on a piece of equipment. Using smaller groups helps keep children from standing around.
Scheimer said she avoids playing games that require children to wait in line because she does not want them to feel as though other students are watching and ridiculing them.
Scheimer also pointed out that physical activity should not be used as a form of punishment; for example, a coach should not require a team to run extra laps due to poor performance. Using physical activity as a means of punishment can cause children to have a negative stigma associated with exercise and physical activity.
The Greenberg Quinian Rosner Research and American Viewpoint survey also found that while nearly one-third of children and teens are obese or overweight, 84 percent of parents believe their children are at a healthy weight. In order to raise awareness, in 2009, an initiative by the Board of Education has pushed 12 states, including Pennsylvania, to conduct yearly Body Mass Index (BMI) testing in grades K-12.
Christine Cronkright, Director of Communications for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said that BMI is a ‘weight for stature’ index that can be used to help determine whether a student is at risk for underweight, within a normal growth pattern, overweight or obese. “It is a screening tool used to assess a student’s risk of future chronic health conditions, such as diabetes and heart problems,” she said.
Previously, the state of Pennsylvania required its public schools to take an annual measurement of students’ height and weight. The BMI screening has not changed that process. The BMI screening uses the height and weight information to compute a BMI score. The height and weight is simply entered into a computer system, which then converts the height and weight into a BMI reading using the formula: BMI = [Weight in Pounds / (Height in inches x Height in inches)] x 703. The computed number is then used to determine whether the child is at a healthy weight, or is at risk for obesity.
A person with a normal weight will have a BMI reading between 18.5 and 24.9. Any number below 18.5 is considered underweight, whereas numbers above 24.9 are considered overweight. Numbers over 30 indicate obesity. These scores are recorded by the schools, reported back to the state, and sent home in letters to parents of children under or above the normal weight.
In 2002, the Department of Health conducted a school student growth assessment, which showed that 35 percent of the eighth graders tested were overweight or obese, a number that was slightly higher than a similar national study. “The Department of Health realized that it needed to be more aggressive in tracking the progress of students’ growth patterns and began development of an enhanced School Growth Screening Program, including the calculation of Body Mass Index (BMI) and BMI-for-Age Percentile,” said Cronkright.
Myra Golumn, school nurse for Bloomsburg’s Memorial Elementary in Bloomsburg, PA., said that the school has just begun implementing the BMI screening within the last two years, but has seen few positive results.
Last year, 450 children at Memorial Elementary were screened. Of those children, two percent were underweight, 65 percent were average, 18 percent were overweight, and 15 percent were considered obese. In comparison, in the 2009-2010 school year, two percent were underweight, 67 percent were average, 15 percent were overweight, and 16 percent were obese. The number of overweight children rose three percent, while the obesity rate in the school declined by just one percent, showing a fairly steady obesity rate within the two-year span.
“Most of the parents already knew their child was overweight, so they are not surprised by the results,” said Golumb, who does not believe the screening is as successful as it could have been. “[BMI screening] does create better awareness, but no lifestyle changes have been made [at home].”
School officials said that their efforts to promote a healthy lifestyle are ignored by parents, who send their children to school with chips and soda, and allow their children to watch hours of television instead of encouraging them to exercise. Because parents and other caregivers play a key role in making good choices for their children, they need to work with school officials to make the healthy lifestyle integrative.