The Growing Pains Of A Healthy Future

Schools Work to Fix Programs in the Battle Against Child Obesity

Originally posted in the fall 2011 edition of The Leader

“Good food is essential to good learning.” This was a statement made by former President Lyndon B. Johnson during the signing of The Child Nutrition Act (CNA) in 1966. The CNA, which is still in effect today, is a federally funded program helping to provide students nationwide with healthy meals.

In recent years, “healthy” has not often been a word used to describe our nation’s youth. Many schools are cutting physical education classes, and high prices on nutritious school lunches are pushing students to buy cheap junk food. The education system cannot be held fully accountable for the obesity of our youth, but many of these issues fall under its control.

In 2010, President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which brought fresher produce and other healthy options to cafeterias around the United States. Like in the grocery store, nutritional foods come at a higher price, leaving parents to dig a little deeper into their pockets.

With the current economy, families are running into issues, especially those who use food stamps. A point often overlooked regarding the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is that half of the $4.5 billion bill was financed from cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which, as AFSA President Diann Woodard said, “is like robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Families that reach certain qualifications are eligible for free meals or reducedprice meals, lessening the impact of the increase. The ones truly affected by the rise in prices are those who lie right above the cutoff line. Their family income may be only slightly more than someone who receives reduced-price meals, and yet they are asked to pay full price. It is a tough pill to swallow for any family, let alone those affected by the struggling economy.

While money will always be a lingering problem, so is the type of food provided. Healthier items are not a popular choice for most kids, but that hasn’t stopped schools across the nation from going to war with junk food in the battle against child obesity.

No longer are all vending machines full of potato chips and sugary snacks; some now contain yogurt, fruits and vegetables. A recent study in New York shows these machines may not be getting as much activity as the ones that contain junk food items. Parents and nutrition experts aren’t surprised, since it is still early in the process. Their theory is that if healthy food is put in front of kids, they will be more likely to eat it over time.

Schools in Philadelphia and Florence, Ariz., prove this theory to be true. Philadelphia will be adding 16 healthy vending machines to its schools, while Florence high schools have shown great progress with the few healthy vending machines they added in 2010.

Companies also have given some vending machines a technological twist. New machines contain a digital LCD screen that streams video messages to students, giving them the nutritional facts of the item and encouraging them to make the healthier purchase. In some areas, the granola bar has become a more prevalent item than the candy bar, an accomplishment for which schools take credit.

Our nation’s schools have neglected physical education, and the rising obesity rate shows that. In a 2010 article, the Institute of Medicine discussed that 17 percent of high school students are meeting the goal of 60 minutes of exercise a day. Why has this happened? Some schools dropped their programs due to budget cuts. Others substituted it for classes focusing on standardized test preparation. The result has been a generation of unhealthy students as the obesity rates have almost tripled in the last 30 years.

In 2007, only 6 percent of our nation’s schools had mandatory physical education programs. Healthy habits that typically formed during gym and health classes now are being replaced by the technology boom, in which kids are searching for the newest video game instead of a new baseball glove.

Without the proper programs to keep students fit and aware, they are more susceptible to such illnesses as diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.

Recess also has found its way to the cutting block. With schools under intense pressure to meet standardized testing goals, recess has been cut back or eliminated to make more time for test preparations.

Since 2010, more states have begun to require physical education, but the specifications on its duration and regulations for teaching it are still lax. Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, said the group was pleased that more states were requiring physical education, but remained concerned the requirements don’t have more teeth.

As the nation continues to focus on education reform, there is hope that the health of students will be made a priority. First Lady Michelle Obama started her “Let’s Move!” campaign to encourage kids to get outside and play. And, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was a step in the right direction, although the funding for the bill remains questionable. Even still, President Obama has continued to encourage the passing of the education portion of his American Jobs Act, which would provide $60 billion for school infrastructure upgrades and education jobs. Finally, as the debate on the reauthorization of ESEA rages on, there is hope that the health of students will be considered when it finally comes to a vote.

However, if schools and policy makers continue to focus on test scores and extended classroom hours while cutting gym and recess, a truly unhealthy generation of adults may ensue. By creating good habits for these students at a young age, the seed will be planted for a healthy future.