Can Schools Cure the Obesity Epidemic?

An Associated Press article about childhood obesity this morning kicks off this way:

RICHMOND–At Chimborazo Elementary, apples aren’t just for teachers. The glossy fruit lined lunch trays on a recent Wednesday, alongside wheat rolls, low-fat sorbet and gobs of greens–healthy choices all happily scarfed by fourth graders.

“There’s a direct correlation between a healthy child and achievement,” said Richmond schools spokeswoman Felicia Cosby, smiling as students tore into string beans and low-fat milk.

State lawmakers hope this is the lunchroom of the future.

Tackling childhood obesity is one of those mom-and-apple pie issues. Absolutely no one is for childhood obesity. How, then, can anyone oppose a measure like the one submitted by Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, that would require state educational and health officials to cooperate in targeting childhood obesity and other juvenile health problems?

Actually, I wouldn’t say that I oppose Edwards’ bill. It might do a small measure of good. What disturbs me is a quote the legislator used to justify the bill: “It’s a state responsibility.”

It’s everyone’s responsibility. Childhood obesity results from behaviors and forces deeply embedded in American popular culture. The state, by ensuring that the healthy foods are served in schools, is a necessary partner in combating obesity. But the problem extends so much farther than the school cafeteria.

Some people blame the giant food companies that peddle sugar cereals, snacks, deserts and junk foods. Yeah… I suppose so. But I remember seeing those commercials, and wanting those cereals (“Trix are for kids!”), when I was a kid more than 40 years ago — and childhood obesity was trivial a problem back then. I think the roots go deeper. For the sake of brevity, I will mention only two factors.

One is the time famine. Parents today, especially those in two-income families, are Running As Hard as They Can (to borrow Ed Risse’s phrase) and, though they know better, often take the easy way out when it comes to preparing food. It’s easier just for an exhausted mom to shove a pizza in the oven than to cook a proper meal. It’s easier to give in to the child who steadfastly refuses to eat his greens.

The other is our cultural proclivity for keeping kids cooped up inside. Four years ago, our family moved from Richmond to Henrico County so my little boy could have room to run and play outside. Does he, in fact, run in play outside? No. Do any of the other kids in the neighborhood run and play outside? Almost never. There are quiet streets for bicycling, and creeks to explore, and cul de sacs to play kickball in, but… you don’t see kids outdoors. They’re all inside.

Why? I think it’s because Americans live in a culture of fear. Mothers are terrified that a molester will snatch their child off the street. They’re terrified that their child will be run over by a car. Mothers don’t want to let children out of their sights (until they turn 16 and, equipped with cars and cell phones, they can go anywhere, do anything, they want). Little boys stay inside, watch TV and play video games. What physical activity they engage in — baseball, soccer, basketball, tae kwon do and other organized sports — is all structured and overseen by adults. Children don’t explore their neighborhoods like they used to. They don’t play spontaneous games of SPUD (anyone remember that game?) or hide-and-seek like they used to. Consequently, they don’t get nearly as much exercise as kids did when I was growing up.

Figure out how to change the time famine, teach kids good eating habits, quell the climate of fear and ensure that kids get more exercise, and we won’t have an obesity epidemic anymore.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


7 responses to “Can Schools Cure the Obesity Epidemic?”

  1. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    ditto with JB concerns.

    Totally wrongheaded “do-gooding”.

    This teaches the absolute worst with respect to personal and parental responsibility. By doing this – you’re actually encouraging parents AND kids to NOT be responsible for themselves and their kids – to EXPECT the government to do Nanny duty.

    My solution:

    Every KID gets a meal card with a magnetic swipe strip.

    Anything he/she eats is RECORDED.

    All snack and food options that are available to the general public are available to the kids but each one has to be “checked off” by their parents as “ok”.
    Vending machines would contain a wide variety but kids “cards” would only work for what their parents approved.

    Ditto in the lunchroom.

    Each parent would receive a report detailing how many calories his kid had every day from the choices made at the school.

    The report could be once-a-month paper, or emails or on a secure website only the school and that parent could view for their kid.

    Any “changing” of choices would be a negotiation between the Kid and his parents – who could then “check” the boxes to approve access.

    What the government should be doing is NOT taking over the parenting chores but empowering the parents to actually perform their responsibilities.

    The government might have to be a “nanny” for kids without parents but in no way, shape or form should the govt be a “nanny” for kids with parents.

    What laws like this do – they actually have the opposite of the intended effect by actually encouraging irresponsible behaviors of BOTH the parent and the kids… in my view.

    This is why each ladder now has to have a MORON warning on it… because common sense is no longer an “excuse” for acting on one’s Darwin impulses.

  2. Jim:

    I agree with you in part. The state cannot solve the childhood obesity dilemma alone. However, for some children, the nutrition lessons they receive in school will be the only such information they receive. It’s one front in a complicated battle.

    As for the time crunch, I hear you. However, a dual-earning family that is motivated to make smarter choices can do so. It isn’t that much harder to microwave pre-cooked grilled chicken breasts and vegetables than it is to heat up the aforementioned pizza. It’s a choice.

    Parents must model healthy behaviors: Proper eating, daily strenuous exercise and outdoor play. While my children don’t ride bikes on the street (impractical and unsafe, as we live in the heart of the city rather than on a cul-de-sac), they do romp with their dog in the backyard and run back and forth to the neighbor’s house.

    Still, for children in families most at risk of obesity, the school system might provide the only positive modeling of appropriate eating and exercise habits. The consequences of doing nothing will impact both the health of the coming generation and the fiscal well-being of all of us through the associated health care costs and lost productivity at work.

  3. nova_middle_man Avatar

    some possible solutions?

    change the time famine:
    good luck on this one
    maybe teach better financial habits
    so families can save better, wait to buy stuff, don’t worry about keeping up with the jonses
    in most areas both parents don’t “have” to work.

    this of course dovetails into the whole mommy/daddy war debate and in NoVa and other places the whole land use/housing type/housing bang for the buck/cost of living/commute/quality of life/school quality debate

    but in the end it still boils down to parent choices and decisions for the most part

    teach kids good eating habits:
    mostly a parent responsbility
    could argue for health classes in school at an earlier age

    quell the climate of fear
    quit watching the local news
    up to the parents again

    an irony is that the demand for parks in suburbia is actually increasing while kids are spending less time outside.

    ensure kids get more exercise:
    mostly a parent responsibility
    have pe/recess in schools
    recess has been shown to be good for kids (i.e. elementary kids need a break, actually increased test scores when recess happens)
    the pe argument is harder since you are taking away from other subjects

    So its primarily a personal responsibilty problem much like many other issues.

    The question is if government money is spent to address childhood health issues can the dollars be recouped by lower medicare/medicaid and health insurance costs down the line

    Without looking at the data my gut reaction would be yes. There is obviously a tipping point return on cost effectiveness.

  4. E M Risse Avatar

    Just a quick note on an important topic:

    Raising my own three, closely observing other families in our dooryard and cluster, observing those in the 50,000 dwellings we designed in Planned New Communities and Planned New Villages and studying families in both functional and dysfunctional settlement patterns here and in the European Union we can state without hesitation:

    Functional human settlement patterns can:

    Fundamentally change the time famine if parents choose to that advantage of the opportunity.

    Go a long way to remove the climate of fear by crating social cohesiveness at the dooryard, cluster and neighborhood scale.

    Provide a context for exercise and creative play.

    Teaching food eating (and lifestyle) habits is a parents job and most fail because of the pursuit of other advertising goals and obsessions.

    More in a future column on Mass Over-Consumption.


  5. Anonymous Avatar

    Glad to see attention on this- but I hope this can also be addressed in a more libertarian fashion.

    What if the school just offered fruits and veggies?

    I guess RPS must be able to offer hot meals in case the buildings are used as emergency shelters, yet I wonder where the schools can do more to save on expenses and duties. Do the schools have to supply full lunches or can the parents be asked to take more responsibility?


  6. Groveton Avatar

    Serve healthy meals at school?

    That’s a good idea. If you’re going to serve something – serve something healthy.

    Time famine?

    Just whining by people who think they are sooooo much busier than their parents. I am sure that my parents felt they were suffereing from a time famine vs. my grand parents.

    MSM inspired fear leading to parents refusing to let their kids go out and play?

    Absolutely. I’d like to see real statistics showing that the number of child molesters, pedophiles, etc. has dramatically increased over the last 15 – 20 years (per capita).

    Sad parents trying to have the kids live the lives they never had?

    Epidemic. Travel teams and PSAT preparation courses. Tutoring services and immersion classes. The list goes on. Kids should be “kicked out of the house” to play. Kids should be forced to study and do homework in a quiet room. This isn’t all that hard. It’s the parents themselves who are creating the problem.

  7. E M Risse Avatar

    I believe Groveton is right to a large degree, it is the parents that are the cause of the problem. Choosing to be parents in the first place, not commiting enough time and resources to the enormous task of raising children, making excuses about needing a have two jobs in the household, etc., etc.

    It is a fact, howerver, that with dysfunctional human settlement pattern not even the best intended can devote the time and energy they need to raising children.


Leave a Reply