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Should Schools Be Responsible for Childhood Obesity Prevention?

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With the nation’s childhood obesity rate triple what it was 30 years ago for adolescents, expectations that schools will do more to help keep students healthy continue to rise. But even as the U.S.Department of Agriculture plans to ban campus junk food sales, First Lady Michelle Obama touts the benefits of exercise and cafeteria turkey tacos, and school districts struggle to meet the more rigorous new federal nutrition standards, a larger question looms: How much can educators really do to influence a student’s wellness?

Author Roxanna Elden, who teaches high school English in Miami, Fla., said that while she supports the feds’ campus junk food ban – which will take effect in the fall of 2014 –there isn’t much schools can do to control the contents of the lunchboxes kids bring from home.

When she taught fourth grade in Houston a few years ago, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos were particularly popular among her students so Elden decided to use them as part of a lesson on how to read nutritional labels. (It’s worth noting some school districts already prohibit kids from bringing the snack food to campus.) Her lecture didn’t exactly go as planned.

“I tried to emphasize how bad this particular food was for your health,” Elden told me. “After the lesson the kids asked if they could eat the bag of Hot Cheetos. It turns out that as I was giving my passionate speech, they were gazing longingly at the bag and mostly thinking, ‘Mmmm, Hot Cheetos.’”

While it might indeed be tough to get kids to choose carrots over Cheetos, there’s a case to be made that the public sees schools as sharing that responsibility with parents. In April, Kaiser Permanente conducted a nationwide survey and found that 90 percent of respondents believed schools should “play a role in reducing obesity in their community” and 64 percent supported it being “a major role.” Respondents in the same survey also showed strong support for the stricter new guidelines for federally funded school meals and for limiting students’ access to junk food on campus.

The American Medical Association has recommended that children in grades one-12 be taught about the dangers of obesity and supported using revenue from proposed taxes on sugary sodas to help schools pay for such educational programs. The AMA suggested its own members volunteer to help schools implement the program. But even with that kind of goodwill effort, schools would likely struggle in the short term to find time in an already crowded academic calendar for yet another instructional mandate. On the upside, many school districts have already initiated aggressive campaigns to address student health, and many have added extracurricular programs aimed at encouraging entire families to be more active and make smarter food choices.

But let’s talk about the long term. Educators know – and the research supports – that healthy kids are better learners. Recent reports have found that obese students scored lower on standardized tests, and they’re less likely to go to college than their peers who are at a healthy weight (Jill Barshay of The Hechinger Report had a clever take on one of those new international reports, wondering if education should market itself as the next weight loss fad). What’s not clear is the relationship between students’ weight and their academic performance. Self-esteem has been found to be a factor in a student’s academic performance, according to some studies, and being overweight is therefore an influence.

Students also can’t learn when they’re not in school, and overweight kids have been found to be more likely to miss class due to health issues. In fact, A 2007 study found the rate of absenteeism was 20 percent higher among overweight children. Think the problems end when the students graduate and are no longer the school’s responsibility? Think again: Obesity-related expenses cost states billions of dollars annually in increased subsidized health-care costs and lost productivity.

For all of the criticism about Nevada’s public schools, the Clark County School District – the nation’s fifth-largest – has been ahead of the curve in several areas. One of them was eliminating junk food sales on campuses back in 2004. I should mention that the ban produced a not-so-surprising early side effect: Convenience stores situated close to the high schools reported a jump in sales in the  morning and mid-afternoon hours when students were walking to and from campus. In other words, some kids only changed the source of their junk food consumption rather than their eating habits.

As the Las Vegas Sun’s education reporter, I did some quality control spot checks at various campuses after the junk food ban was passed. I found that bottled water and graham crackers had indeed replaced the sports drinks and chocolate bars — with one notable exception: the machines in the faculty lounges were fully stocked with the familiar array of candy, chips and sugary sodas. That the ban didn’t extend to the adults on campus illustrates the larger challenge facing schools, families, and communities as a whole. Improving students’ nutritional sensibilities is not just about regulating what they are allowed to consume when they’re in a relatively limited environment. It’s about setting them on a healthier path to adulthood when their choices are no one’s responsibility but their own.