By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor
Recess is cut, or taken away as punishment, or stymied by dilapidated play structures. PE loses funding, is shockingly sedentary, or only happens once a week. School meals are sub-prison fare, or overpriced, or nutritionally void (or all three). Meanwhile, in my Gen-X lifetime, childhood obesity has tripled. So I see why we’ve looked to schools – the common denominator for all American children – as a source of relief for this health crisis.
But a few studies are showing that some of the expensive, hard-fought “magic bullets” that we’ve championed to fight childhood obesity in our schools… well, they aren’t working.
First, there’s the sad, sad news that soda bans in schools aren’t having the desired effect. Lowlights from a great article on this failure include:
- “Studies have shown that about 13 percent of the average teenagers’ total daily calories come from sugary drinks…”
- “At the start of the 2009-2010 school year, 14 U.S. states banned soda in school vending machines and 19 banned it from lunch lines in school cafeterias…”
- “In U.S. states that banned only soda, about 30 percent of middle-school students still purchased sugary drinks like sports and fruit beverages at school, similar to states that had no policy…”
So we take sodas out of schools (what was soda doing in school anyway?), and kids still drink just as many sugary drinks – and some of those kids no doubt falsely believe they’re making healthier choices now that soda’s been removed. Whether kids are drinking “juice,” “sports” drinks, or sugar water, we’re all complicit in a nationwide sugar addiction that’s not going anywhere without widespread education and behavior modification. This quick-and-dirty solution, I think, was set up to fail.
The failed social engineering around obesity isn’t limited to tinkering with beverages choice on school campuses. The pediatrics department at UCSF recently did a study on children’s BMI (body mass index). For this study, schools measured almost 7 million California fifth, seventh, and ninth graders’ BMIs. Some parents were notified of their child’s BMI, some weren’t. Results were calculated two years later – when the same children’s BMIs were checked again. Basically, informing parents of their child’s BMI had no effect on the child’s BMI at next measuring – two years later!
The study’s conclusion? “These findings suggest that while BMI screening itself could have benefits, parental notification in its current form may not reduce pediatric obesity. Until effective methods of notification are identified, schools should consider directing resources to policies and programs proven to improve student health,” the conclusion states. Another quick fix, another fail.
At least reforming school lunch is more of a long-term solution. But while this initiative is more comprehensive, has better reach, and aims to change immediate behavior, it still may not do all the heavy lifting for us. As Jane Black noted over at Slate:
”The National School Lunch Program is the country's second largest program for feeding hungry citizens, spending $8 billion annually on meats, grains, and produce. And the USDA estimates that many school children get as much as 50 percent of their calories at school. Surely we can do better than breakfast tacos and [flavored] milk packed with as much sugar per serving as Coca-Cola. But amid all the media attention to school-based obesity-prevention efforts, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that improved school nutrition alone is not nearly enough to reverse the appalling rates of childhood obesity in America, where one in three children is overweight or obese. That other 50 percent of kids' caloric intake still needs to be addressed. The reasons school-food reform became a rallying point have more to do with political strategy than with the likelihood that school meals will fundamentally change children's eating habits or help them lose weight. Simply put, it's just easier to attack the way the government feeds kids than the way their parents do.”
Should we – gasp! – put the onus squarely on parents? Of course, but on a national level, schools remain the most logical place to address this crisis. Here’s my not-so-radical idea: Let’s harness the power of what schools do best: Teaching! Health and fitness should be taught in schools – as part of both science and PE. In fact, all the money put toward campaigning, marketing, and passing the soda legislation (and at least some of the funds put toward the political machine for school lunch reform) might have paid for both the curriculum development and the teachers to make the school approach both more effective – and better aligned with what schools are designed to do.
But amidst education cutbacks, how can we expect schools to teach kids about health? Maybe schools should adopt the genius (free! Magic bullet!) training tool of soccer coaches everywhere – and send kids out to run laps between classes. That might work…