The “Leave No Pound Untouched” Act

Public schools have been drafted again and again to fight national problems (e.g., segregated schools, teenage pregnancy, cigarette smoking, drinking alcohol, and drug use). Courses have been added to the curriculum to combat these and many other national problems. Social beliefs that schools must be part of any solution is deeply embedded in the American psyche and schooling practices. Consider obesity.

What might policymakers do if they were dead-set in reducing the number of fat kids?

Imagine civic, business, and foundation leaders so worried about the social and individual costs of health problems that overweight children would face as adults that they wanted schools to fight a war on fat. Imagine, further, that these policy elites, riding the current moral crusade against fat children, wanted to solve the problem now. Would they follow Singapore?

Since the early 1990s, Singapore had operated an obesity-reduction program called “Trim and Fit.” School officials identified overweight young students and compelled them to join a “health club.” In these “clubs,” teachers instructed chubby students to run, jump rope, and do other exercises. They received “calorie cash” coupons for school meals that would not exceed the number of calories stamped on the ticket. Lunches were monitored to reduce soft drinks, French fries, and fast foods. Teachers measured students’ height, weight, and body mass monthly. The government awarded cash to schools that found new ways for students to shed pounds.

According to government records, these “health clubs” and incentives reduced the proportion of overweight students from 14 percent in 1992 to 10 percent in 2003. Serious drawbacks arose, however. The head of physical education at the elite Singapore Chinese Girls’ Primary School said that “to keep them in the club for a long time is bad for their self-esteem because there’s a stigma tied to it.”

In 2007, the government ended the program even after substanial reductions in overweight children, because policymakers–spurred by parents and educators–concluded that the psychological costs to “club” students of being bullied and teased unrelentingly outweighed (yes, a bad pun) program gains. Singaporean culture, centralized national authority, and a decided preference for social control nearly guarantee that this program would not fly in the U.S. So consider another possibility.

Now here is where I want readers to join me for a moment in an imaginary leap of schools fighting childhood obesity. Imagine that President Joe Biden signed the Leave No Pound Untouched Act, a variation of No Child Left Behind legislation of 2002, to prevent increased incidence of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other crippling diseases associated with obesity.

Yes, it is a huge leap in imagination but humor me.

The Act would give government officials the authority to use the Physical Fitness Test (it does exist) as a lever to reduce fatness. Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standards would be set and, if met, schools would be identified as “fit and trim.” Those schools that failed to meet standards would be rated “unfit” and if those schools continued to fail, they would be closed. State, district, and school officials would make public all of the above information, particularly the poundage gap between trim and unfit schools.

In schools eager to meet standards, they would lengthen physical education classes. Principals and teachers would identify those students close to their expected body mass index (BMI) or just a few pounds overweight. These students would have the best chance to pass the national Physical Fitness Test. Extra physical education sessions would be scheduled for them to run laps on ball fields, practice body curls, push-ups, and pull-ups. All vending machines for candy, sugary sodas, and chips would vanish and new ones dispensing carrots, bananas, celery sticks, and sugarless candy would appear. Low-calorie, tasty lunches would be served daily.

Even were this implausible scenario of a moral crusade and federal law to occur in the U.S., the spread of obesity among children would continue unabated since—here’s the punchline—underlying causes of childhood obesity can just barely be attacked by schools for the six or so hours children and youth attend school. Those causes begin in the family and are pronounced by the time five year-olds enter kindergarten.

The historical record offers little confidence in federal or state intervention when it comes to obesity. Consider, for example, the lack of concerted federal action since the 2001 Surgeon General’s Call to Action on obesity. Squishy inaction underscores the inherent conflicts between food industry profits and federally-led campaigns promoting healthy eating.

Moreover, the hours children watch television, how little or how much money families have to spend on food, and a dozen other reasons anchored in social class, family interactions, and cultural norms encourage obesity. Schools, at best, are only a finger in a badly leaking dike.

Direct action focused on changing adult behavior similar to past anti-smoking campaigns would be needed, not indirect efforts such as schoolhouse lessons, providing nutritious lunches, and installing vending machines with non-sugary snacks. While surely helpful in concert with national ad campaigns, more muscular political action from the Surgeon General’s office, anti-obesity groups lobbying for state and federal legislation to tax high-calorie soft drinks, and banning fast food industry ads targeting minors would be some measures that might have a chance to stem the tide of fat spilling over the nation.

Imagining schools as front-line warriors in a war on fat–as has occurred in the past with other social issues, however, would only repeat the dismal history of foisting complex problems onto schools and substituting illusions for direct action.



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