This afternoon I attended the NE Medical Association's Childhood Health / Obesity policy group meeting. The group is comprised of various public health advocates - doctors, registered dietitians, nutritionists, and educators, among others - who are working together to propose helpful solutions and policy-level impact in combating obesity. Childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions and the CDC has labeled it accordingly.
The obesity epidemic is real locally, too, and thousands of Nebraskans are affected by it. Our district is similar to most across the state and we have between 20 & 30% of our students per grade level who are highly overweight or obese. The health consequences are dire and schools do have a role in this. We have students with us for a good portion of the day during the school year and for many kids, a majority of calories consumed on those days are at school. Schools need to promote physical activity for a lifetime and nutrition literacy. Schools don't need to be dictatorial and Machiavellian about instituting 'regime change' that takes the element of choice out of classrooms and lunchrooms, but when it comes to student diets, schools need to help encourage the consumption of healthy foods and minimize the frequency and prevalence of the bad stuff. By 'bad stuff' I just mean foods of minimal nutritional value - candy and pop, for starters.
It occurred to me that one of the things schools should be doing is reporting out on their vending product choices, publishing their a la carte lunch items, and disclosing aggregate (group only) BMI data to show what their trendline (waistline trendline!) analysis looks like. Why? Because schools that are being up front about their aggregate BMI results and sharing fitness testing results will be more likely to be positioned to share why physical activity and health education are priorities in their district. We've already got the evidence that shows the correlation between fitness and academic achievement. Healthy students are more learning-ready and are more likely to achieve higher learner outcomes. It's obvious to parents but what is less obvious is how sedentary the learning experience remains for many students.
Our mission statement talks about our commitment to helping each individual learner "thrive." In order to do that, we have an obligation to take a balanced curricular approach. We need to carefully integrate routine physical activity opportunities and promote healthy student nutrition choices throughout the day. It's not that tough to do - it doesn't require a lot of resources schools don't already have - and it's the right thing to do. We just need to provide the support for everyone doing it, consistently, through quality professional development.
One of the things the group talked about is that, to borrow the Druckerian truism, "What gets measured gets done." Schools are now recording BMI data and many districts, like ours, have instituted fitness testing using the Fitnessgram. We are going to publicize our fitness testing group results - grade level group summaries. We can do this for tests of strength, flexibility, and endurance. I think our parents are every bit as concerned about the health of their students and what schools are doing to promote healthy, learning-ready students, as they are in seeing how their kids are reading and performing in mathematics.
By the way, while I was there this afternoon I got to meet one of my heroes, Dr. Cristina Fernandez. She does amazing work providing interventions and education for children and families that are afflicted with childhood obesity and the attendant health problems. Her blogs provide great outreach and practical advice about this profoundly important public health issue. Check her posts out at http://blogs.livewellnebraska.com/author/cfernandez/ and you'll see what I mean.