Childhood obesity has steadily grown as a serious concern in the United States. Among elementary school children, the percentage of children afflicted with the disease has tripled over the last three decades. Children with obesity suffer both physically as well as emotionally. Contributing factors to the problem include sedentary lifestyles, inadequate emphasis on physical education, and dietary influences. There are several innovative programs that have proven to be successful in schools, such as the one percent or less milk program, the fresh fruit and vegetable pilot program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the General Mills Box Tops for Schools. Changes that school districts can make to improve the well-being of children include serving healthier school meals, educating children and parents on healthy eating, creating better structured after school programs, increasing physical activity and conducting fundraising activities which support healthier lifestyles for children.
School districts carry a large burden of responsibility in guiding the development of the minds of our young. They also need to assume an additional challenge by focusing on the healthy development of children’s bodies as well as their minds. Districts can play a direct role in pushing for policy changes in school breakfast and lunch programs, increasing the amount of physical education provided to a level that meets their state’s standards, and taking steps toward providing children with a comprehensive nutritional education.
Studies conducted at Yale University demonstrate that as a result of children’s poor diets today, this generation may be the first in modern history to have shorter life expectancies than their parents (Men’s Health, 2003, p. 38). The prevalence of childhood obesity is becoming increasingly alarming. More than 15% of elementary school students nationwide fall within the definition of obese, defined as body mass index of greater than 30 (Blass, Elliot, M., Ph.D. 2003, “Biological and Environmental Determinants of Childhood Obesity” Nutrition in Clinical Care, 6 13-19). Genetics are a contributing factor in less than one percent of the population, which makes this a curable and preventable disease (Blass, p. 14).
A commonality among all children, regardless of economic and social background, is that the majority of their time is spent in school. This is where teaching children to eat healthfully and exercise needs to take place. Communication with the children and their families about the benefits of proper nutrition and exercise can be implemented through teachers, coaches, food staff, and administrators. Unhealthy eating habits form in childhood, losing weight is hard, and the failure rate for weight loss is high. If we are proactive and focus on the prevention of this problem, children will perform better in school; have fewer behavioral problems and a stronger emotional base for psychological development. Intervention now will make long-term success for maintaining a healthy weight much more likely.
It is crucial that educators and parents are aware of the impairment in quality of life, psychosocial and physical health that is brought upon a child because of obesity. The declining health of America is a grave issue that needs to be addressed as seriously as we take teaching children the dangers of smoking. This challenge is not an easy one, but the future of our children and generations to come depends on turning around this dangerous trend. It will take shared responsibility of parents and educators to make a difference, but change is realistic and attainable.