National Report Highlights Role of Schools in Addressing Childhood Obesity

August 23, 2011

By Sarah Rosenberg, HSC intern

After reading the recent report on obesity in the United States from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Trust for America's Health, I’m optimistic about the potential for schools to be positive vehicles for change. The updated statistics on obesity did show that it is increasing pretty much across the board; but at the same time, policymakers, individuals, and communities seem to have realized over the past few years that it’s time for action. People all across America, including many we have a chance to work with here at HSC, are working hard to provide children with healthier school environments that offer healthier school food and increased physical activity. Some of the big changes include :

  • Improved nutritional standards. 20 states now have nutritional requirements for school food that exceed the USDA’s standards, compared to four states seven years ago. The USDA itself is in the process of overhauling nutritional standards for school food to bring them into line with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines released by the Institute of Medicine. (You can take action to support improved national standards here.)
  • Wellness policies. 99 percent of schools now have a wellness policy, up from 81 percent five years ago.
  • Physical education and activity. Though all states have PE requirements, 11 states have also added physical activity requirements for children mandating a certain number of minutes of physical activity, daily or over the course of the week.
  • School-based body mass index (BMI) reporting. Up from four states seven years ago, 21 states now monitor student BMI, in an effort to prevent and reverse childhood obesity.
  • Local, fresh produce. As of this summer, 26 states have established Farm-to-School programs, encouraging schools to buy more fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Competitive foods. 35 states have standards for competitive foods, up from six as of 2004.

While large scale legislative change is important, it’s also important to start improving school wellness from the ground up –- and many schools and communities are coming together to do so. 

In San Diego, schools hold regular in-class taste tests to encourage students to eat more produce from the local farm-to-school program. Schools in Miami Dade County have created “Read and Ride,” where middle school students can do their silent reading on donated exercise bikes. And here in Chicago, 19 schools have overhauled policies for food, physical activity, and health education to meet the high standards of the HealthierUS Schools Challenge, with dozens more on the way.

What one YMCA director quoted in the report said of his community could apply to the country as a whole: “We know we have a lot more work to do.” This report makes it clear that schools have a key role in the long-term solution and are already taking steps to make a difference. 

You can access the full report here.