The stubborn figures on child and adult obesity in the U.S. over the past few decades added to the individual and social costs associated with higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer make being fat a major health problem. I noted in Part 1 that White House programs, federal legislation on school lunches, and city-wide health initiatives in scattered locations have recognized the sheer complexity of trying to reduce obesity in young children and adults. No one policy, no single institution solves this multi-faceted problem. Moreover, smart policymakers see that while schools (and larger educational programs) are essential in any strategy to reduce numbers of overweight Americans, broader policy measures and other institutions play an equally large role.
The entangled roots of obesity go deeper than what an individual, family, or the neighborhood school does. It is an issue that involves a mix of political, economic, and social actions. For those who see obesity as a complex issue, their reform agenda includes proposed policies that, for example, increase taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, disclose number of calories and color-coding of labels to help children and adults make choices, new zoning regulations that would restrict fast food outlets near schools while providing incentives for healthy food stores in under-served neighborhoods. Such proposed policies recognize the inter-connectedness of obesity to daily eating habits, socioeconomic patterns in food choices, corporate profit-making, and governmental initiatives. The example I gave of Louisville’s city-wide initiative to improve health and thereby reduce illnesses and death attributed to obesity made clear that political, social, economic, and educational institutions had to be involved in a cooperative venture. Other cities from Boston (MA) to Columbus (OH) bring together public and private agencies (including schools) to reduce obesity in adults and toddlers even before they arrive at school.
The point here is that a health problem such as obesity requires, at the least, collaboration among a city’s institutions to even begin addressing it. It takes a city to help its citizens, young and old, lose weight. Putting the task on one institution–say the health department or the schools or soda pop companies is myopic and self-defeating. Yet that short-sighted focus on a few institutions is precisely what has occurred when it come to reducing poverty in the nation.
In the mid-1960s, the federally launched War on Poverty’s major weapon was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (re-authorized as No Child Left Behind in 2002). Federal funds went to districts and schools with high percentages of low-income students to raise their academic achievement, graduate high school, get jobs, and, in time, be better off economically than their parents. The hope was vested in schools as the primary agency to lift the poor into the middle class. Not new of course, this “educationalizing” of social and political problems–think desegregation since the 1950s, national defense during the Cold War between the 1950s-1980s. and since the 1980s schooling tied to a stronger economy. As for poverty as a problem, reformers see public schools playing a central role in reducing its effects.
Consider the “no excuses” school reformers of the past decade (see here) who believed in their heart of hearts that teachers and principals in public schools can not (and should not) use a family’s low-income as an excuse for poor student performance. Schools are, these reformers—hedge fund managers to superintendents to political leaders– have said repeatedly, can and must rescue low-income students from their poverty-stricken zip code. While these bumper-sticker sayings sound like an either/or choice, even at the height of the media storm there were some smart “no excuses” reformers who saw that re-segregated neighborhoods, multi-problem families, the disappearance of jobs, and crime had negative effects on young children entering school and staying there through high school graduation. These savvy reformers called for more community institutions to be involved in socializing and educating those who were caught in the cycle of poverty. New ideas that embraced an ecumenical view of countering and overcoming poverty have been in play for decades but seldom rose to first choice among the current generation of “no excuses” reformers. But these community-wide alternatives for reducing ill effects of poverty on individuals, families, and neighborhoods are larger than fingering schools.
For example, in the 1990s, private and public monies created the Harlem Children’s Zone (see here and here) a multi-service array of school, medical, and social services located in that part of New York City. While President Barack Obama launched a federal grant program to replicate HCZ in other cities in 2010, it has not happened. Each city is different and getting public agencies, private foundations, neighborhood activists, parents, and school officials to come together is hard to do and sustain.
Similarly, community schools where public and private agencies come together in low-income and working class neighborhoods to provide an array of services to families–sometimes called wraparound schools–has been around since the 1930s, revived in the 1960s, and continues in the 21st century (see here, here, and here). These community schools, like the HCZ, pursue an all-inclusive strategy of reducing poverty akin to the obesity-reduction approach. Such programs recognize the problem as complex, one demanding a comprehensive approach rather than holding one community institution–public schools–accountable for solving the socioeconomic problem.