Should Schools Be the "Fat" Police?
Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the last 30 years. The growing number of overweight kids has become a concern for schools nationwide, and many have taken action by assessing students’ weight as part of campus wellness programs—often to mixed public reaction. Should schools act as the “fat police”?
While the role of schools in obesity prevention is complex, many pediatric healthcare experts agree that it’s important to start somewhere. “Schools are in a challenging situation with regard to childhood obesity,” acknowledges Rebecca A. Krukowski, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Science College of Public Health. “There is little to no funding for childhood obesity prevention programs or interventions in the schools, yet since most children attend schools, it is often looked upon as a valuable opportunity for programs related to childhood obesity.”
Robert Murray, M.D., the Director of the Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and a Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, echoes this view, saying, “Trying to bring healthcare efforts into the community and get them more engaged is a good impulse.” And this epidemic is not one schools can afford to ignore: the Center for Disease Control reports that obesity leaves kids vulnerable to depression, hypertension, diabetes, osteoarthritis and cancer down the road—problems that not only threaten quality of life, but take an economic toll on whole communities.
Flagstaff Unified School District in northern Arizona is one of those schools taking the fight against childhood obesity into the classroom. They recently conducted weight and measurement assessments and sent home letters to parents indicating whether children fell into percentiles considered underweight, a healthy weight, overweight or obese. The letters were part of the district’s response to a growing problem in the area: a high percentage of Flagstaff’s children, according to a district nurse, are either overweight or obese, with obesity-related diabetes on the rise even amongst toddlers. The letters also recommend follow-up visits with doctors and provide healthy nutrition and exercise guidelines. FUSD’s program, which partners with local organizations to combat what has become a national problem, is typical of many such programs in schools across the country.
Whether or not these school outreach programs work has everything to do with how they are framed, says Murray. Much of the parental backlash has to do with the sensitivity of the issue—what parents wouldn’t worry about their preteen being teased for bringing home a “fat letter”? But many of the letters that will go home with kids across the nation only specify their BMI, or body mass index, percentiles. “BMI screening provides a number or a weight status classification—just information— that is not inherently offensive or cruel,” assures Krukowski.