How much responsibility do schools bear for addressing the obesity of their students? (page 2)
Forgive the grammar, but the student body just ain’t what it used to be.
Here’s the hard, heavy truth: American kids are fat and getting fatter. In the late 1970s, about 7 percent of U.S. children between the ages of six and 11 were considered obese, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. The percentage now is more than 13 percent, even higher among teens and in certain demographic groups.
The reasons why are no surprise. Children are simply a mirror of the country at large: 127 million American adults are overweight, almost half of them officially deemed obese.
These Americans typically eat poorly and exercise infrequently, if they exercise at all. It’s pretty much the same with overweight children, whose diets tend to be dominated by fatty fast foods and sugary snacks; who watch too much TV (about four hours a day on average) and who rarely venture outside to play (less than two hours a day on average).
None of which bodes well for a child’s education.
“That’s the irony of all this,” says Tom Templin, a professor of health at Purdue University and president of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education. “We’ve known for a long time that the body and mind work together. If kids aren’t healthy, their academic prowess is affected.”
A Leader’s Role?
But what’s a school leader to do? Generally speaking, the care and feeding of children is the job and duty of parents, not superintendents, principals and teachers.
“Parents are ultimately responsible for their kids’ nutrition, for their education, for everything,” says Joe Bast, president of the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based organization that promotes libertarian ideals.
Yet over the years, responsibilities that were once the sole province of parents, such as teaching about sex or drugs, have fundamentally shifted to schools. At times, it sometimes seems, educators are expected to address—in one form or another—virtually every aspect of a child’s persona and life.
That includes what they eat and their state of health.
“Making sure children eat right and well has been a shared responsibility of parents and schools ever since the first school sold or provided a food item or beverage to a student,” said Dr. Howard Taras, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Diego.
“So in that sense, it is not an unfair burden on schools. Whoever is providing food for our children should be responsible with what foods they provide. In fact, schools may bear a certain increased burden, because as a teaching institution, they need to be a role model.”
Taras, who serves as a medical consultant to several K-12 districts, says there’s nothing terribly wrong with a child drinking a soda now and then. “But selling or otherwise providing sodas in school is inappropriate,” he contends. “Why? Because schools should be setting a positive example. What schools serve is almost an endorsement of what is healthy, of what is OK to eat.
“The same can be said for physical activity. Every man, woman and child should be active during the day, and children spend the greatest portion of their days in school so physical activity must occur there. So again, schools bear a larger burden. They share the responsibility with parents to educate students on how and why to do this,” Taras adds.
Presumably, few educators would argue otherwise.
“Our top priority is academic achievement. It’s not our job to make sure kids eat right,” said Dr. Dexter Louie, a physician and board of education member in the Moraga School District, east of San Francisco. “But as school leaders, we have the opportunity to do a really good thing. Kids are there to learn and being healthy helps them learn.”
Louie backs up his words with actions, visiting schools to discuss proper nutrition and health as part of an outreach program sponsored by the California Medical Association Foundation.
“I tell kids immediately that we’re not going to talk about the food pyramid and stuff like that,” said Louie. “I ask them if they know any diabetics. I talk about that disease and others, what they do to people’s bodies and how you can avoid them if you avoid obesity. I tell them that when they reach adulthood, the two things they will value most are their families and their health. I don’t lecture down to them. I tell them to figure it out.”
But Louie is clearly an exception to the rule.
According to a Centers for Disease Control study in 2000, roughly half of all school districts (with middle and/or high schools) had distribution contracts with soda vendors. Almost 80 percent of these districts negotiated to get a specified share of receipts. In these districts, students typically can buy sodas from vending machines, snack bars, school stores, even the cafeteria.
That soda helps wash down a multitude of junk food: 70 percent of the schools surveyed by the CDC permitted the sale of low-nutrition snacks during lunch. At the other end of the spectrum, fewer than 10 percent of the districts surveyed provided daily physical education classes or the equivalent—this despite the fact the CDC and other health authorities recommend children and teens participate in moderate to vigorous physical activity for one hour five times a week.
Not surprisingly, school officials find themselves in a tight spot. Most say they would like to do more, but there are other considerations.
First, selling sodas, snacks and foods like pizza and chicken wings is a lucrative and arguably necessary business. Revenue from such sales helps keep a lot of school food service programs in the black and in some places funds school activities and field trips that might not exist otherwise. Many fear, whether they admit it or not, that banning junk food sales would cause financial disaster.
Second, the higher academic standards and greater accountability of No Child Left Behind have compelled many districts and administrators to roll back or eliminate programs that might detract from a core curriculum.
“Schools have all sorts of mandates and elevated expectations,” says Purdue’s Templin. “Educators begin looking at what they’re expected to teach. They look at other activities like art, music, P.E. and health, and they prioritize what’s most important. That makes for a very difficult situation for people who value those curricular activities that tend to get cut or minimized, like P.E. and health.”
Besides, say many educators in moments of candor, solving student obesity is not really their job, even if they were adequately equipped or able to solve it.
“Our responsibility rests with that over which we have control,” says Mike Redburn, superintendent in Bozeman, Mont. “If anyone depends on the school to do the heavy lifting on student nutrition and health, their hopes will be unfulfilled. Families and communities must meet their responsibilities.”
Reprinted with the permission of the American Association of School Administrators. © AASA
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