Is America Willing to Pay the High Price for Childhood Obesity?

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Andrea Collier Andrea King Collier is a freelance journalist and author with a focus on health and health policy. She is also a past Food and Community Policy Fellow. Her book Still With Me... A Daughter's Journey of Love and Loss was published by Simon and Schuster. Her book Black Woman's Guide to Black Men' s Health with co-author Willarda Edwards, M.D., was published by Warner Wellness.

The measurements of childhood obesity go beyond the scales, the doctors’ offices, and health care dollars. Overweight and obese children are underperforming in the classroom and on standardized tests. The support of policies and funding that would improve the health outcomes for 30 percent of our school aged children would help to elevate test scores, graduation rates and overall academic performance.

The Link: Academic Underachievement and Childhood Obesity

Data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that 68 percent of eight grade students in this country are not reading at grade level.  U.S. children are quickly losing academic ground. They rank 25th in math and 21st in science achievement compared to other industrialized countries. And shockingly, economic and education experts estimate that if the educational achievement gap continues, it will cost this country between $300 and $500 billion in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

While the education issues in our country are layered and complex, there is no doubt that childhood obesity has an impact on a child’s ability to learn and comprehend at school. Both education and public health researchers are monitoring the academic achievement of obese and overweight school aged children. The research continues to show that there is a direct correlation between childhood obesity and lower academic achievement across ages and grade levels.

One measurable way to look at the links between obesity and school achievement is through student absenteeism. A study that analyzed attendance patterns in fourth, fifth and sixth graders in Philadelphia found that obese children were significantly more absent than their normal weight peers. Obese children missed school two days more per school year than their normal-weight classmates.  Missed school days mean missed opportunities to learn.

Student absenteeism also cost school districts much needed dollars. Large school districts alone can lose anywhere between $95,000 and $160 million dollars per school year due to obesity-related absenteeism. 

Can Obese Kids Keep Up In the Classroom?

America’s, obese children and youth suffer from teasing at school, often sleep apnea, and fatigue and have difficulty keeping up in school. School administrators and front line educators say that obese and overweight children come to school more tired than their normal weight peers. These children are also more likely to exhibit a lack of concentration in the classroom, are teased and bullied more, and suffer from lower self –esteem than normal weight children. The end result is that many of the overweight and obese children perform lower on academic, cognitive and standardized testing.

Does Current School/ Education Policy Contribute to the Problem?

There are many reasons that our school-aged children are becoming increasingly overweight and obese. But the formula for reversing the childhood obesity epidemic is clear—quality nutrition with reduced high fat, high caloric intake and more physical activity. Many school policies contribute to the obesity crisis.

As an example, the amount of time that school districts allotted for physical education, and recess has been dramatically reduced over the past 30 years. According to the CDC, only 3.8 percent of elementary schools, 7.9 percent of middle schools and 2 percent of high schools in the country are providing physical education classes.

The reduction was in part due to a desire to increase the amount of time spent on the academic basic during the school year. It should be noted that during the same time period there has been a steady decline in standardized test scores and overall achievement in many districts. The majority of school-aged children do not meet the Surgeon General’s recommends 60 minutes of physical activity per day. And there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that a minimum of 90 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous physical activity in school may go a long way to both reducing childhood obesity, and improving academic achievement.

Is School Food Contributing to School Performance?

School meals, including lunch, snacks and a growing number of breakfast feeding programs served, may be helping to drive weight gain in America’s children. Meals have become an important part of the services that schools provide. Yet, a recent study funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), found that children who eat school lunches are more likely to be overweight.

USDA funds both the National School Breakfast Program, which feeds 11 million children every school day and the National Lunch Program, which feeds 31 million children and youth each school day. Yet 94 percent of school lunches did not pass the USDA quality standards.

A Call to Action

As government officials and policymakers at the local and state level, you are an important part of the equation of improving academic and health outcomes for our children. You can help shape policies that address the quality of food served in schools, and the increase in physical activity that children and youth get in schools every day. And you can encourage the establishment of active communities that include safe walk and bike routes to school. Here are some specific ways that you can help to reduce childhood obesity and improve academic performance for the students in your district and across the country:

Support Healthy School Food

  • Establish mechanisms to identify and enroll children who are eligible for federal nutrition assistance programs to optimize participation. 
  • Develop state and district standards for foods and beverages served in schools
  • Support policies that restricting the sale of unhealthy products in vending machines,
  • Strengthen state-administered nutrition education and promotion initiatives for all federal nutrition assistance programs, including school meals.
  • Support equipment upgrades to school kitchen facilities so healthier foods can be stored, prepared and served on-site.
  • Develop policies that restrict the marketing of unhealthy foods surrounding schools, parks and other locations where children gather.
  • Create permanent wellness councils to establish, implement and monitor school- based wellness policies that promote healthy foods and beverages.

Support Physical Activities In/ Near Schools

  • Establish policies that require a daily minimum of quality physical activity in all schools.
  • Propose a comprehensive school activity program that provides opportunities during the day for students to engage in physical activity.
  • Require the integration of health education throughout the school curriculum.
  • Develop joint-use agreements, so that community members can use school fitness facilities and schools are able to use community facilities
  • Adopt policies that promote school staff wellness, so that teachers and other school personnel can set a solid example of health and wellness for the students
  • Support before and after school programming that increases student physical activity levels.
  • Establish policies calling for regular, properly supervised recess that includes physical activity.
  • Mandate the reinstatement of physical education classes taught by certified physical education teachers.
  • Work with other entities in local government to support a Safe Route to School program in your area.

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