West Virginia Looks to Schools to Curb Childhood Obesity
By Kendrick Vonderschmitt, CSG Graduate Research Assistant
U.S. children spend more time in school than any other place outside the home. In addition to academic instruction, children learn healthy eating habits from their experiences in cafeterias and play habits from gym class and recess.
A June 2013 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 90 percent of Americans believed K-12 schools had the biggest role in fighting obesity.
West Virginia is striving to get schools involved in those efforts. The legislature this year passed Senate Bill 663, the West Virginia Feed to Achieve Act, which strives to provide all students with access to a nutritious breakfast and lunch during the school day.
Sen. John Unger, who sponsored the legislation, will discuss the bill Sept. 19 during The Council of State Governments 2013 National Conference in a special policy session, “State Approaches to Obesity Reduction.”
The rate of childhood obesity in West Virginia tripled from 1980 to 2008, rising from 7 percent to 21 percent, according to the West Virginia’s Center on Budget and Policy. The Feed to Achieve Act focuses on nutrition, pressing local boards of education to collaborate with state and federal departments of agriculture to create community gardens, establish Farm to School programs and create other programs that teach students how to grow healthful food.
“We can’t ignore access to nutrition,” Unger said. “Communities in poverty are often ‘food deserts’ where healthy and unprocessed foods are unavailable.”
The bill, in fact, was inspired by the hunger of a 9-year-old in a Berkeley county classroom. . Hunger and obesity may appear to be opposing forces but they are intimately related. Obese students often consume food that is calorie rich but nutrition poor.
“This bill is about more than filling stomachs,” Unger said.
He wants to help the students when they are in the classroom as well. “Wellness is tied to achievement, it is as important as a teacher or a textbook.”
Students consume between 35 and 50 percent of their daily calories at school, many through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program, which provides free and reduced-cost meals to more than 31 million low-income schoolchildren each year.
A 2009 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that these same low-income children were disproportionately likely to be overweight and obese. Low-income students are less likely to have access to healthy food options whereas high calorie but low nutrition food is plentiful in many low-income communities at relatively lower prices.
In the end, Unger hangs his hat on building the next generation of healthy West Virginians.
“We can’t fix every child, but we can provide nutritious meals to every child to give them the best chance at a productive life,” Unger said. “If we can get it right with the child, we can get it right with our society.”
This is not West Virginia’s first foray into obesity reduction policy in schools. In 2005, the legislature passed House Bill 2816, the Healthy Lifestyles Act. The act created a new Office of Healthy Lifestyles, banned the sale of soft drinks during most school hours and created new curriculum requirements for physical activity, which were paired with fitness tests and BMI calculations.
An August 2013, the CDC report found that West Virginia was one of five states in which obesity rates in preschool-age children have dropped since 2008.
Other speakers on the panel will be Deb Ridgeway, coordinator of the Kansas City, Mo., Bicycle and Pedestrian program who will discuss the role of active transportation in curbing obesity; Janet Collins, associate director for programs at the CDC, who will discuss the health care costs associated with obesity; and Harlan Levy, government relations director for McDonald’s,who will discuss the role of the private sector in fighting obesity.