Schools and Obesity (Part 1)

Recent articles trumpet that rates of children and adult obesity are not getting better (see here and here). In 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama launched an anti-obesity campaign “Let’s Move” to reduce rates of childhood obesity. While the campaign has gained traction results have been disappointing. As she said recently: “Right now, one in three kids in the U.S. is overweight or obese – for African American and Hispanic kids, the rate is nearly 40 percent. And obesity is now one of the leading causes for preventable death and disease in the United States.”

The “Let’s Move” campaign has cultivated close ties with large corporations (e.g., Wal-Mart) to persuade large companies to sell healthy product, directed media attention to overweight children and perils to their health as adults, and gained bipartisan support for a federal law in 2010 that mandated free-and-reduced price meals for 21 million children containing more healthy ingredients like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy products . The First Lady has gone to schools highlighting healthier lunches, bans on sugary sodas and fast food, and increased physical activity during the school day. She exercised with children and ate the nutritious meals served at lunch-time. While schools have been an important of the campaign, they have not been a wholly exclusive part of “Let’s Move” for the past five years. Note the words: “important” and “wholly exclusive” in referring to the role of schools in this and similar anti-obesity campaigns. As has national socioeconomic problems in the early 20th century such as Americanizing waves of eastern and southern European immigrants, seeking racial equity in desegregation since 1954 and, since the early 1980s, a stronger economy through tougher standards, accountability, and testing, the U.S.’s obesity problem has not become “educationalized.” Schools are part of any solution to obesity, campaigners assert, but the epidemic of obesity reaches into homes, stores, and the structures of a market-driven capitalism.

Why is that?

As rates of obesity in both children and adults trend upward–the U.S. has the highest per-capita rate among developed nations–and its effects on health have shown up in higher rates of diabetes,cancer, and heart diseases, obesity, especially among minority and low-income families, is seen as a multi-layered, complex phenomenon rooted in family habits, social class, cultural patterns, and corporate profits gained from marketing and selling fast foods and sodas. (Some of these long-term effects and complexity of obesity is captured in the sci-fi film WALL-E about morbidly fat earthlings circling the planet on ships waiting for it to be habitable). Focusing on public schools, then, would be short-sighted, incomplete, and diversionary from disentangling the many threads that have created a society that over-eats and under-exercises.

The entangled roots of obesity reach far beyond being an individual or even a school problem. It is a community and national issue that involves a mix of political, economic, and social actions (e.g., large food purveyors lobbying Kentucky’s legislators to permit use of food stamps for buying fast food restaurants like Taco Bell) is captured in recent proposed policies to reduce numbers of overweight children and adults. For example,  increased taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, more calorie disclosures and color-coding of labels, new zoning regulations that would restrict fast food outlets near schools while providing incentives for healthy food stores in underserved neighborhoods.

That obesity is a multi-faceted problems anchored in cross-cutting factors that go well beyond schools is picked up by some cities that have launched comprehensive programs to improve the inhabitants’ health. Consider Louisville (KY). With foundation help and public funds, the metropolitan area has taken on the task of improving the health of its residents. The Project lists socioeconomic factors that affect a community’s health (e.g., social support for family, jobs, education, income, community safety); health behaviors (e.g., smoking, alcohol use, obesity); clinical care (e.g., access to physicians, dentists, and health screenings); and the physical environment (e.g., parks, roads, air and water quality). Like other cities engaged in such an effort, policymakers see the complexity of obesity as a health problem rooted in many factors that have to be addressed, one of which is schools.

That wisdom about the problem of obesity has yet to emerge among those reformers who see schools as the prime mover in decreasing poverty and economic inequalities. I take up how obesity and poverty as major problems facing the nation have contrary strategies in Part 2.


Filed under leadership, school reform policies

5 responses to “Schools and Obesity (Part 1)

  1. Larry: Nice job. I would point out that while Mrs. Obama promotes movement in schools, her husband’s test-and-punish policies have resulted in many schools cutting back on recess in favor of more test prep. Some have even replaced recess with remedial classes for kids at risk of not doing well on state tests. It would be nice if Mrs. Obama tried to get the president to help rather than hinder. Looking forward to part 2.

  2. Alice in PA

    Interesting idea to contrast between our country’s approach to obesity and poverty. Brings to mind all kinds of questions. Should schools always be the front line in solving any social problem? How do we encourage heathy habits of any kind in our free society?
    Looking forward to reading Part 2.

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