THE NUMBERS ARE ASTOUNDING—and disturbing. Nationally, the obesity prevalence among children and adolescents has almost tripled in the past three decades. According to a recent UCLA study, Patchwork in Progress, overweight and obesity rates are about 35% for 5th, 7th and 9th graders in Ventura County.
Our children’s health and their ability to learn continue to be in jeopardy. Schools, teachers and parents can help by making schools healthier places to reverse the rising obesity trend. The statistics are alarming and should encourage all of us to take action. Action is needed to meet Healthy People 2020 objectives to reduce the proportion of children and adolescents considered overweight and obese by 10%.
- More than 30 percent of American children are obese or overweight.
- Overweight kids are likely to become overweight adults.
- Kids are less active overall due to today’s fast-paced but sedentary lifestyles.
- Most students do not have daily PE at school.
- 35% of school-age children watch an average of 5 or more hours of TV each day.
- Obese elementary students are 4 times as likely to miss 2 or more days of school in a month
- Low-income and minority children are most seriously at risk.
All of these children face serious, yet preventable, obesity-related health risks such as diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer.
Most schools provide meals through the federal School Lunch Program. Unfortunately, this system remains flawed in delivering healthy meals. Additionally, it is common for schools to allow unhealthy foods to be sold as a way to finance other needed improvements.
Secondly, schools are challenged by providing enough daily physical activity time for students as they face increased pressure to raise standardized test scores. We seek to bring together schools, parents, and community members to find healthy solutions.
In response to what has been called an obesity epidemic, school districts in Ventura County are challenged to revisit and revise contracts with vendors, change the food offerings in cafeterias and for fundraising purposes, and refocus their physical education efforts.
Are School Lunches Healthy?
Some children consume half of their daily calories at school, making it an ideal place to promote a healthier diet. That is why is it crucial that schools provide daily opportunities for fresh fruits and vegetables. Some schools in Ventura County have instituted farm-to-school programs, partnering with small farmers who provide low-cost, high quality produce that can be integrated into school meals- and ideal solution with harvest-rich Ventura County. See our Local School Initiatives page for more about excellent local efforts.
With improved school meal guidelines in place, many public health leaders are focusing on competitive foods – foods that are not part of the school meal. Competitive foods are often sold in vending machines, a la carte lines, school stores, and/or snack bars, and through PTA fundraisers; and until now, they have not been subject to the same nutrition standards as school meals. It is time these activities come under close scrutiny and follow healthy food guidelines.
Similarly, sometimes the school store is run by the students, who use the profits for their own programs, while other times profits to go a particular program in the school. Schools need to institute policies such that children are presented with a range of ONLY healthy choices at school.
The majority of children are not getting the recommended 60 minutes per day of physical activity. Physical activity is important for all children – and especially for those who are overweight. In addition to helping maintain a healthy weight, physical activity helps children build strong bones and muscles, lowers their risk of chronic disease, and promotes a positive self-image.
Increasing physical activity at school during recess, physical education, and in short breaks can have a meaningful impact on children’s weight status. Additionally, high-quality physical education programs help children develop positive attitudes toward physical activity, and set the stage for regular physical activity throughout life.
Due to budget cuts, an increased focus on core academic subjects, and added pressures of standardized testing, daily physical education is rare in schools. Paradoxically, evidence shows that increasing physical education can improve grades and test scores. Physical activity in the classroom and on the playgrounds are necessary components to building both strong minds and bodies and needs to be part of a school’s overall priorities.
Like physical education, recess is an opportunity for kids to be active. Recess has been shown to improve classroom behavior; yet, recess is sometimes withheld as a form of punishment, or to make up for a shortage of time in the classroom. Not only is this counterproductive to learning, such practices misunderstand the integral nature of physical fitness to a child’s growth, development, and behavioral management.
Developing A Comprehensive School Nutrition/ Wellness Policy
To stop the increase in obesity and poor health among our children and students, schools must take the steps necessary to create a multi-disciplinary policy addressing exercise and nutrition. Such a policy includes these components:
- Healthy food policies
- Remove junk foods from campus
- Ongoing nutrition education
- Daily physical activity in the classroom and during recess
- Staff nutrition and PA training
- Family and community involvement
- Annual program evaluation
Team California Healthy Kids Recommendations
California State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Torlakson, has provided the following recommendations and and guidance that California public schools should:
- Provide physical activity breaks when seat time exceeds one hour in addition to extended recess/ PA classes
- Work with communities to promote active transport to and from school (walking & biking to school programs)
- Maintain quality physical education programs
- Provide fresh fruits and vegetables through salad bars and at snack times
- Implement Farm to School programs, school garden projects and school farmers markets
- Replace unhealthy treats for class parties and fundraising activities with healthy options
- Provide fresh, clean drinking water to fill cups or water bottles
School Wellness Policies: Policy Brief by Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity
Let’s Go! Tool Kits for K-5, Middle & High Schools, & Preschools
School Resources by ACHIEVE: Action for Health, Innovation and Environmental Change
Childhood Obesity: Transforming School Food Policies
Guide to Going Green at School
Team California for Healthy Kids
California Project Lean
Action For Healthy Kids
Harvest of the Month
Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of Adolescent and School Health, The Food Trust, CDC: Center for Disease Control, National Health and Nutrition Examination survey data