Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor
Every day in the U.S., large numbers of children go hungry. A report by the Food and Research Action Center (FRAC), for example, found that, in 2010, nearly one in four U.S. households with children struggled to afford food. Another FRAC report documents the links between poverty, lack of access to fresh fruit and vegetables, and poor health status.
The health of low-income kids is being jeopardized further by school budget shortfalls — in surprising and disturbing ways, according to an article by The Bay Citizen's environmental health editor, Katharine Mieszkowski.
In her report, Mieszkowski compares physical fitness outcomes at Cesar Chavez elementary School in San Francisco's Mission District, and at Sycamore Valley elementary school in Danville, a wealthy Bay Area suburb.
At the Danville school, 83 percent of fifth graders passed the statewide physical fitness test, receiving high scores on six different fitness measurements. At Cesar Chavez, not a single fifth grader received healthy scores on all six measurements. Further analysis by The Bay Citizen found that fitness performance correlates to student income across Bay Area elementary schools. While none of the students at Sycamore Valley have incomes low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, 85 percent of students at Cesar Chavez do.
It's easy to account for the difference in fitness outcomes at the two schools. The schools are not far from each other geographically, but worlds apart in every other way. At Sycamore Valley, for example, a "physical education specialist" helps kids train for the fitness test. All 21 elementary schools in the San Ramon school district, where Sycamore Valley is located, have such specialists. In contrast, San Francisco's 76 elementary schools share 15 physical education specialists, so Cesar Chavez elementary has to wait it's turn for a small fraction of a specialist's time.
But the differences between the two schools go deeper. At Sycamore Valley, parents pitch in to pay for movement classes for kindergarteners and to buy equipment, like new basketball hoops. The school is located next to a lush park that offers athletic fields and a basketball court, and Danville's safe, wooded streets and large backyards provide plenty of safe open spaces for kids to run and play.
At Cesar Chavez, in contrast, PE classes are taught by classroom teachers on the school's fenced-in black top. There are no rims on the basketball nets and, given the many poor and homeless families at the school, donations to school programs are scant. There are no fields or parks near the school, just busy urban streets.
It's not news that across the country, budget cuts are hurting schools and that schools in low-income areas — where resources are stretched and parents can't afford to make up for financial shortfalls — are often hit the hardest. It's not news — but even in these worst of times, it's shocking to see the very real impact of these inequities on children's lives. With obesity and diabetes rates on the rise and growing evidence of a connection between physical fitness and academic success, we can't afford to neglect kids' health, no matter how tight budgets are. Unhealthy kids grow up, in many cases, to be unhealthy adults and by failing them, we're jeopardizing their futures and creating a health emergency that threatens us all.