Schools: Just one battlefront in the war on childhood obesity

What role do schools have in helping to reduce childhood obesity rates? Emily Richmond raises the issue in a recent post on The Atlantic. She makes a a good case for schools’ interest in the issue:

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… 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.

Leaving aside fraught questions from the ed reform side of our work (e.g., what standardized tests really tell us about learning, and how many social problems we can reasonably ask schools to address), we agree that schools most definitely do have a role in fighting childhood obesity. Kids eat about one-third of their daily calories there, and research shows that well-designed nutritional programs have a measurable impact on what they eat and what they know about healthy eating. Moreover, it’s what kids want.

The end of the day: Taking the fight to prevent childhood obesity into every corner of our communities

The bigger question, though, is just how much weight schools have in the fight against childhood obesity. Kids spend a substantial part of their days on campus, but eventually they leave. They venture onto the streets at the end of the day to load up on snacks (almost 400 calories a day in one Philadelphia study.) They go home to families who may or may not be couch potatoes, and who may or may not stock pantries full of Chips Ahoy!, Pringles and soda.

So what can we do? Keep the focus on schools for a start. And then expand into communities in a much more comprehensive way. This means addressing:

  1. Neighborhood businesses: Philadelphia’s innovative healthy corner store initiative offers a case study in how kids can be motivated to play a role in building healthier communities. And business partners can be incredibly effective change agents. Grocer Jeff Brown, for one, understands the business benefits of running a store that offers low-income communities access to healthy foods that dovetail with the communities’ cultural backgrounds.
  2. Families: Social contagion that moves from individuals to communities is an incredibly powerful catalyst for positive change. Practical tools that teach families how to make healthier choices make a huge difference at the household level where most of our lives take place. Research supports this theory. “Your health is not just a result of your choices and actions but also the choices and actions of people around you,” says Nicholas Christakis, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., a professor of medicine and of medical sociology at Harvard Medical School, who has done extensive research on the idea that the people around us influence our health, happiness and even weight. (That’s why we created A Year of Being Well, a free book of action tips by and for families on living healthy on a budget.)
  3. Built environments: As Amanda Timm, executive director of LISC Houston, recently wrote here, we should look at comprehensive community development, “an approach to neighborhood revitalization that … includes investments in affordable housing, commercial property and community centers” and that looks “expansively at ways to provide safe streets, safe outdoor places for families to engage in physical activity, and easier access to healthy foods.”

There are other fronts where this battle must be waged. (Marketing, anyone?) But the bottom line is this: Fighting childhood obesity effectively demands that we balance personal action and environment. At home and at school, we have to educate kids about how to make healthy choices and about why they matter. Meanwhile at a very localized level, we have to partner with community members, businesses, city council members, school boards and others to reshape our neighborhoods so that kids are no longer at such high risk. Our goal? Ensuring that we don’t just educate kids about choosing healthy options, but that we shape our communities in ways that turn the healthy choice into a no-brainer.

Emily Richmond is the National Education Writers Association’s public editor. Read her post on The Atlantic or follow her on Twitter.