Can Schools Stop Kids from Getting Fat? Second Time Around

In this post, I focus on the national habit of turning to schools to solve social problems, in this case child and adult obesity. What has happened in the past two years since I published this post (August 23, 2009) has been a sharp increase in anti-obesity campaigns led by First Lady Michelle Obama and more research studies that both strengthen and challenge the school’s role in battling obesity.

The short answer to the question in the title is no. The long answer is this post.


The cliche that when the nation has a cold, the schools sneeze remains true when it comes to the media-hyped frenzy over obesity. In the past, moral crusades often led to public schools getting drafted to help solve the problems. Too much drunkenness? Too much smoking? Far too many auto accidents? Teens having babies? Public schools must do something to remedy the problem. Historians of education call this the “educationalizing of social problems.

Since the early 1900s, states have mandated that children and youth sit through classroom lessons that teach the ill effects of drinking alcohol, smoking, and having unprotected sex. None of these school ventures into problem-solving, I should add, arose because research studies demonstrated that a new curriculum and dynamite lessons would make a difference in youth behavior. New policies were morally-driven interventions triggered by elite consensus and women-led campaigns to change social behavior. Crusades need neither medical evidence nor research studies to prove that schools should be in the business of changing self-destructive behavior.

When one looks at the statistics on schools’ success in changing youth drinking, drug, and sexual behavior, however, the record is dismal. But what about smoking? The sharp reduction in adult and youth smoking in the past four decades came from warning notices on cigarette packs (1966), extensive lobbying by anti-smoking groups to get legislation, raising taxes on cigarettes, and banning ads and sales to minors. Direct action focused on changing adult behavior, not schoolhouse lessons.

Battling against harmful individual behavior is not the only war well-intentioned elites have enlisted schools to fight. The Cold War struggle between the U.S. and Soviet Russia in the late 1950s led to the National Defense Education Act (1958) and more science and math teachers. A short-lived War on Poverty produced the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) charging schools to rid poor children of low academic achievement. Fears of losing in global economic competition prompted the Nation at Risk report in 1983. Since then, federal and state officials have mobilized schools to be an arm of the economy in preparing students for an information-driven labor market. Judging by current statistics on poverty, unemployment, and recessions schools have been singularly unsuccessful in solving these social and economic problems. No one reputable I know, for example, has argued that the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s was due to the success of U.S. science and math teachers.

And now there is another drama unfolding where schools have been dragged into a crusade against fat children. Another problem educationalized. Redefining obesity as an epidemic and therefore a public health problem (e.g., higher incidence of diabetes, cardiac problems) is again a morally-charged mission to solve a national problem. Turning personal behavior into a public health problem opens wallets to fund efforts to get rid of the causes of obesity and easily leads to drafting schools to stop kids from getting fat.

These crusades that draft schools to change individual and national behavior are great theater for American audiences to watch but once the media lose interest and the finger on the remote changes the channel, those behaviors persist. When it comes to the obesity epidemic, surely school officials sending home reports on their children’s weight, providing nutritious lunches, banning soft drink vending machines, and increasing time spent in physical education are helpful efforts but these well-intentioned moves have hardly changed eating habits before and after six hours in schools. What might schools do if they were serious about reducing the number of fat kids?



Filed under school reform policies

4 responses to “Can Schools Stop Kids from Getting Fat? Second Time Around

  1. As a recently retired principal, I can tell you what I did. Our school of 500 had 90% free and reduced meals. The other 10% were just above the poverty line and brought their lunch. This means we controlled what they ate. I worked with the food service director to provide tasty meals what were low in fat with no added salt, and lots of fruit and vegetables. Fruit was usually featured as the dessert item. We did a plate waste study and found that over 80% of the food was eaten.
    We had a one hour lunch block and as soon as the students finished eating, they were allowed to hit the playground. We had organized games that kept them moving for about 45 minutes. PE classes also focused on keeping students active. When we checked the bmi of our students we found less than 10% to be overweight or obese. Without making a big deal about it, we tried to make sure those students were active. Teachers were allowed to take classes for a quick trip to the playground or for a walk if they felt students needed it. I paid no attention to test scores and never talked about data. Rather, I looked for lessons that engaged student interest and kept them active in the classroom. As a retired principal I do a blog for busy educators and parents who don’t have as much time to read or mine the Internet as I do. DrDougGreen.Com – Keep up the good work Larry.

  2. The problem with micromanagement – I mean evil “gummint” regulation – is that schools cannot develop their OWN strategy and make their OWN choices on how to approach a “social mandate” situation once it gets beyond a certain point.

    Even if research points them in a useful direction – oh let’s say educating children about how the body works where they have to spend money on some less-than-useful strategy. Let’s say “abstinence only” sex ed that researchers knew was ineffective PRIOR to its being mandated by the Bush administration. Public health docs at CDC in Atlanta had to sit through indoctrination lectures led by pseudo-researchers. Teachers who knew nothing about the research, enthusiastically used the “new strategy” because nobody was allowed to mention

    In the case of obesity, we have yet another complex system to disentangle and figure out what we can and can’t do and how effective those things might be. The science is clear, at least in a general way. Children have access to large quantities of food that is prepared in such a way as to be easily processed at high efficiency. Limiting access is obvious, but the political consequences of limiting the site administration’s petty cash drawer that is constantly filled by revenue from selling such food is problematic. ” The alternative of providing raw foods that offer less available nutrition at higher metabolic cost means high supply line problems involving acquisition and spoilage – however substituting less nutritious fillers that have few available starches or sugars, such as sawdust may be a productive way of cutting cost and slimming students. ”

    • There was supposed to be an elipsis after “nobody was allowed to mention . . . ”

      The sarcasm “tag” was unfortunately lost, but I’m not supporting the use of sawdust as a filler.

  3. Larry, I agree that enlisting school curriculum in the cause of moral crusades is largely useless, but I do not agree that schools should not be systematically targeting the obesity issue in our children.

    I remember in high school how the food that was available for purchase was essentially Taco Bell or Pizza Hut. Those were the choices. And some vending machine junk. Now as a teacher working in a school like Dr. Green’s above (over 90% free lunch), I can see how important it is to provide access to healthy food choices when we are the ones who control and provide the food. Green’s decision to provide the right kind of food and promoting exercise for his students is critical, and these are the decisions that school leaders need to be making. We have a responsibility to our children to provide a structure for promoting health and in providing healthy choices.

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