A lot of factors contribute to the magnanimous rate at which childhood obesity has grown over the last few decades. Since children attend school five days per week, and some children eat two out of three daily meals in school, schools ought to take an active part in ensuring that children are engaging in behaviors that will increase the likelihood of healthier outcomes. This essay, then, is designed to discuss three ways in which schools can promote health habits among its students.
Nutrition is, of course, key in weight management. Amanda Bower and Jeff Chu (2006) wrote an essay detailing the ways in which school cafeterias can prepare healthy foods. Their article praised Berkeley High School, in California, for having a long line of students waiting at the salad bar. Bower and Chu call the Berkeley school system a “paradigm of school-lunch reform” (p. 84). The article also mentions that Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School created the Edible Schoolyard. The children spend 90 minutes each week planting, growing, harvesting and preparing their own fruits and vegetables. These kinds of initiatives are important in helping children make great food choices. If schools provide salads, wheat bread instead of white bread, and naturally sweetened fruit drinks instead of soda, children will learn to like these foods, or, inevitably, learn to deal with it when there are no cookies and chips to choose instead. The down side to this, of course, is money. School cafeterias are usually expected to make a profit; therefore, schools have to decide whether the health of their children is more important than being profitable, or, even better, they could figure out how to sell better food and make money.
Exercise is also a key component in maintaining a healthy body weight. Most schools offer some physical education component, but most schools don’t offer daily physical education requirements – and they should. There is a myriad of information showing that increase in exercise in a direct link in staying, or getting, healthy. Since many students like gym class, schools can use physical education to first, reinforce the lessons learned in health class, but also to teach children about target heart rates and about how much exercise is needed daily, even outside of school (weekends, summer vacations). Children are smarter than most people give them credit for, and if children saw physical exercise as fun and healthy, they might be more inclined to participate. Since girls may like different exercises than boys, physical education teachers should provide exercises to suit both genders. PE teachers can also give students a list of some of their favorite fat-burning exercises that students may have never even considered exercise. For example, fat is burned during activities like building a snowman, or bouncing an infant or toddler sibling.
Finally, schools can do more to educate parents. When children are enrolled in school, an immunization record (and sometimes a dental record) is required to show that parents have taken preventative measures against certain diseases and conditions. Obesity is now an overwhelming condition, and the hypertension and diabetes that go along with childhood obesity are diseases that are sometimes preventable. Perhaps parents should also show proof of at least one dietetic counseling session. Then, parents are also accountable for meal planning. If all parents could read nutritional labels, they would understand serving sizes, and assist their children with portion control.
M. Sharma (2006) wrote that early involvement of the school is best. “Primary school settings are the most ideal settings for school-based interventions as the obesity prevention behaviours are getting formed at these ages” (p. 164). Alice Waters, who collaborated with the Berkeley school district, agreed. She said, “We have to go into the public-school system and educate children when they’re very young” (Bower & Chu, p. 84, 2006).
Lawrence Hardy (2006) believes that the future is bleak for children who are overweight and obese. He expressed the need to look closely at minority groups who are, biologically, at a disadvantage. He wrote, “Mexican-American boys and adolescents, age 6 to 19, are either overweight or at risk for becoming overweight” (p. 26). As well, 31% of African American males in the same age group, and 40% percent of African American females are overweight, or at risk. Conversely, only 29% of white males, and 27% of white females, have the same weight-related issues. Hardy, too, is a fan of schools taking the initiative to correct this problem. He added that schools needed to:
address physical activity and nutrition through a Coordinated School Health Program; designate a school health coordinator and maintain an active school health council; assess the school’s health policies and programs and develop a plan for improvements; strengthen the school’s nutrition and physical activity policies; implement a high-quality health promotion program for school staff, a high-quality course of study in health education, and a high-quality school meals program.” (p. 26)
He took many of the suggestions from the CDC website (www.cdc.gov).
As iterated earlier, fingers of blame can be pointed in many different directions when trying to figure out how the children of America have gotten so fat. With children being in the care of the school system for so much of their time, it is natural that educators, the children’s role models, are an excellent place to begin the health-related interventions of proper nutrition, adequate exercise and parental education, as well.