Parents are Key to Reversing School Health Disparities

March 18, 2014

Leading the way for their children’s health

On the fourth anniversary of Let’s Move!, as First Lady Michelle Obama announces exciting new measures to support student health, there’s much to celebrate across the nation — especially here in Chicago. Recess has returned to elementary schools, nutrition standards for school meals are stronger and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has adopted district-wide daily PE and wellness policies. CPS schools are becoming healthier places to thrive in and learn in, thanks in large part to key parents leaders who are part of Parents United for Healthy Schools.

Parents United was formed in 2006 out of concern for skyrocketing rates of asthma and obesity in certain geographic areas of Chicago. Health disparities — differences in health outcomes that are closely linked with social, economic, and environmental disadvantage — are often tied to the social conditions in which individuals live, learn, work and play. A recent Chicago study shows that the differences in neighborhood conditions strongly predict who will be healthy, who will be sick and who will live longer. People living in communities with the least access to nutritious foods, predominantly African American and Latino neighborhoods, have an average life expectancy more than 12 years shorter than those with the highest access. Today, one’s health is more closely linked with one’s Zip code than one’s genetic code.

Change blooms at home and at school

Beyond statistics, conversations with new Parents United members start from an even more basic premise: Parents love their children and want what will be best for them. Guillermo Gomez, HSC’s Vice President for Urban Affairs, says: “Parents United starts with participants’ own personal experiences, and uses a social justice frame to build on that knowledge and develop a common understanding and plan of action.”

Parents United helps individuals make healthy changes in their own lives, then helps raise awareness of community factors and connect to a network of people that makes change on a community level. Collectively, different communities work together to bring about change at the school district and city level.

This model has allowed much change to blossom in schools across the district. Parents have emerged as natural leaders, and more than 250 parents graduated from HSC’s Parent Leadership Institute. Parents first take steps to change their own routines by forming after-school cooking and exercise clubs with others. Then gradually, they think how best to create healthy change at their schools and across the city. They’ve organized wellness fairs, parent summits and open dialogues with principals and the school district. Graduates are now working to implement programs and policies that promote health and wellness in their schools, including daily recess and physical education, healthy classroom fundraisers and celebrations and increased access to fruits and vegetables. In all, they’ve taken the helm of more than 50 wellness teams districtwide. Together, Parents United members spearheaded change in many of the schools that successfully met the HealthierUS School Challenge.

Making student health a priority in Chicago and nationwide

In the last four years, Let’s Move! has shaped and focused a national conversation on curbing the alarming obesity rates in our communities. By spotlighting these issues, Let’s Move! has inspired and driven the work of people in local communities. Parents United members are reinvigorated with the attention these important issues are receiving and they continue to be vital advocates for health promoting school policies and practices. In Chicago earlier this year, parents successfully advocated for a policy that now requires daily physical education in every CPS school. Learn more about daily PE in Chicago.

Although health disparities persist in certain neighborhoods, there’s strength that comes from common geography.

Gomez says, “Parents realize that individual concerns are shared by others in the neighborhood — in other words, they’re not alone. And together, they can make a difference. “