Shared Learning

Do schools have a role in childhood obesity prevention?

In a world saturated with fast food, microwave dinners, and energy bars, have we lost sight of the value of a homemade meal? Teaching our children that convenience is king, and that real, whole foods are too time consuming to prepare has doubtlessly contributed to our national childhood obesity epidemic. In spite of recent gains in childhood obesity prevention efforts, more than a third of our kids remain either obese or overweight.

We regularly follow blogger and policy activist Nancy Huehnergarth’s tweets and posts on the subject of childhood obesity prevention. Her recent Huffington Post article, Bringing Back Food Education Where It Belongs – In Our Schools, calls for more and better food education in K-12 schools and ties the disappearance of educational staples like her own home economics class to children’s overall lack of awareness about food.

“Today, few kids can tell a snap pea from a string bean. Sautéing is as foreign to today’s teens as a landline. A recent survey in Australia found that 20 percent of kids think pasta comes from animals. 27 percent think yogurt come from plants. Clearly, in today’s fast-food, fake-food world, few kids have a clue about where their food comes from or the difference between real food and food that comes in a box. And we wonder why our nation suffers from epidemic rates of obesity and chronic disease.”

(Read the full article on the Huffington Post.)

The bigger challenge, of course, is that schools are struggling to provide kids with basic educational skills. Budgets are strapped. Teachers are overburdened. Can we really afford new initiatives aimed at noncore skills?

Pairing grassroots-efforts and evidence to craft sound (and affordable) childhood obesity prevention policies

Given the link between childhood health (in particular childhood obesity) and educational outcomes, schools have a clear interest in helping to foster kids’ awareness of healthy behaviors, including healthy eating. The key is ensuring that we encourage the adoption of well-designed programs with proven benefits.

The Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living takes exactly this approach. The Austin, Texas-based organization applies rigorous research methodologies to evaluate and increase the effectiveness of community-based programs focused on issues like healthy eating. Then, based on that research, the center works to help craft policies that promote healthy behaviors among children.

“The ultimate goal of this work – the work of the center overall – is to drive policy changes either at the city level, the state level or the federal level,” Dr. Alexandra Evans, a lead researcher for the center says. “But it’s also to get the information back to the local organizations that we work with so they can adjust future programming, because it makes no sense to be spending money on strategies that don’t work, even though they feel good.”