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Sizing Up the Obesity Crisis

By nurturing healthy habits, public school educators are tipping the scales in kids’ favor.


Perry County Central High Runners

Photo by Larry Robinson

By Cindy Long

Throughout the day, students at Evoline C. West Elementary School in Fairburn, Georgia, put down their pencils for 10-minute physical activity breaks like jumping rope and winding around the classroom in conga lines. In Anchorage, Alaska, Huffman Elementary students cross-country ski after school during the long winter months. And at Park Elementary in Tulsa Oklahoma, they’re saying goodbye cookie dough, hello wrapping paper. For fundraisers, that is.

They’re all working with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a partner organization in the National Education Association’s Health Information Network (NEA-HIN) campaign to counter the childhood obesity epidemic.

A key component of the campaign is partnering with on-the-ground organizations that work every day to improve the health of children. “We want NEA members to know these organizations are already in our schools, and that they have a credible work history,” says NEA-HIN Manager of Programs Nora Howley.

Ginny Ehrlich, executive director of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, encourages educators to sign up for the organization’s Healthy Schools Program online. Participation is free and provides access to hundreds of resources and tools for implementing healthy changes at school.

“Students who are healthy learn better, are better able to concentrate on their work, have better attendance, and perform better in class,” says Ehrlich. “Schools are powerful places to not only teach young people the academic skills they need to succeed, but also healthy life skills.”

From “Couch to 5K” in Kentucky

Another NEA-HIN partner is Action for Healthy Kids, which collaborates with the Alliance For a Healthier Generation (the Alliance) at schools nationwide, including Perry County Central High School (PCCHS) in Hazard, Kentucky.


Perry County Central High Runners

Photo by Larry Robinson

The high school was honored last summer by the Alliance with a Bronze Award for efforts to improve school wellness, which is no small feat in southeastern Kentucky.

Hazard is in the heart of the eastern coalfields of Appalachia. This is rural America, where the median income is just over $20,000, 30 percent of families live below the poverty line, and buying organic produce at Whole Foods is not an option. On top of that, Perry County lies in an eight-county area identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the least physically active region in the state.

But the kids at PCCHS are working to change all that. Students like senior Corey Bryant, 17, who has long struggled with weight and was determined to join his classmates to whip his and the entire student body into shape.

“The best part is the motivation,” he says. “We’re pushing each other to get healthy.”

First, they started a physical activity club they named "Walk It Out," where students use breaks within their class schedule to walk laps outside around the school or inside the gym. Then they formed a co-ed intramural basketball league, complete with a tournament and championship game in April. And this year they challenged the entire student body to go from couch potato to road race runner in the “Couch to 5K” afterschool interval running program.

They got their fitness ideas from Students Taking Charge, a project of Action for Healthy Kids (AFKH) that helps students across the country make their schools healthier places.

“The students wanted to get more of their classmates off the couch and away from TV and video games,” says principal and NEA member Estill Neace. “They’re training three days a week for two community 5Ks, one this fall, and another in the spring, using a grant from AFHK to pay the entry fees.”

Even Neace is trying to “walk the walk” by training with the group and cutting down on his Diet Pepsi consumption.

He also set a good example by getting rid of unhealthy vending snacks and working with the school’s dietician to improve the nutritional standards of school meals to meet the guidelines of the Alliance, which are higher than the requirements of the state.

“Plus, there are no more pizza or candy fundraisers,” says Neace. “We do a lot more car washes now.”

Break Out the Breakfast

The school also wants to expand its breakfast program and recently applied for AFHK’s School Breakfast to School Wellness Partnership grant, a crucial program for rural schools.

Hazard is in one of the nation’s “rural food deserts,” a term used to describe areas where there are lots of fast food chains but limited access to markets selling healthy, fresh food. And because it’s in a low-income community, 80 percent of students are on the free or reduced-price meal plan. Breakfast and lunch served at school might be the only meals many of these kids will eat.

A longtime advocate for universal school breakfast, NEA-HIN is working to expand the country’s school breakfast program and is launching breakfast-in-the-classroom resources for NEA members later this year.

"It’s important that kids start the day well-fed, with nutritious meals,” says Lisa Sharma, NEA-HIN’s Program Coordinator for Nutrition, Hunger and Physical Activity. “Eating a healthy breakfast is tied to improved academic performance and can help kids develop healthy eating habits they will carry with them into adulthood, which can help prevent obesity.”

Kids who skip breakfast are more fatigued and less focused by late morning, which can trigger behavior problems. They have more difficulty concentrating and don’t perform as well on tests. They also have more sick days, more visits to the nurse’s office, and eat more calories later in the day, leading to weight problems.

The same can be true when they eat unhealthy meals. That’s why NEA-HIN, along with NEA lobbyists, pushed for a robust reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act this year. They urged Congress to increase resources for all school meal programs, given the link between good nutrition and academic success; to establish nutrition standards for all foods sold on the school campus, including vending machine fare; and to provide training for food service workers to learn new ways to up the nutritional value of school meals.

“Schools have made a lot of positive changes in response to federal requirements for wellness policies, but even in tough economic times the government needs to continue funding these programs,” says Jerald Newberry, director of NEA-HIN. “With the serious threat the obesity epidemic poses to the health of our nation, there is no excuse for not having healthy schools.”

A few steps in the right direction can go a long distance—like 26 miles. After joining the fitness program at PCCHS, junior Brad Williams, 16, ramped up his training regime. This fall he’ll run the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C.

“It all starts with that first step,” he says.

What else is NEA-HIN  doing to fight obesity?

Micelle Obama's Let’s Move Campaign


Photos courtesy of The White House

It wasn’t long after the First Family moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that Michelle Obama broke ground on the White House Kitchen Garden with students from Bancroft Elementary School in Washington, D.C.  Through the garden, she began a discussion with kids about proper nutrition and the role food plays in living a healthy life.

A year later, she launched “Let’s Move,” a children’s health campaign that aims to beat childhood obesity in a single generation, so that children born today will reach adulthood at a healthy weight. A key ingredient of her campaign is healthier meals at school.

“It’s a no-brainer,” says Marie Knutson, a food service worker at Lien Elementary in Amery, Wisconsin. “How can we expect children to develop and grow if we don’t feed them properly, especially when we don’t know what they’re getting home?”

Photos courtesy of The White House

Knutson’s school has begun to serve more fruits and vegetables—many of which are harvested from the school’s new garden—as snacks as well as with lunches, but she says they still buy too much processed, prepackaged food because it’s less expensive.

“The problem is, we only have so much money,” she says.

That’s why NEA is “at the table” with the Let’s Move campaign to ask for more funding for school meals and more training for food service workers to help them plan and prepare healthier menus. NEA also lobbied for additional funding through the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act.

The vote didn’t happen before this issue went to press, but to track its progress visit our Legislative Action Center.

Video: PE Boosts Achievement!

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