Preventing Childhood Obesity at School, at Home, and in the Community: Cornell Nutritional Sciences Expert Presents Legislative Testimony on the Childhood Obesity Epidemic in the State

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WENDY WOLFE, A RESEARCH associate in the Division of Nutritional Sciences, testified in June before the New York State Assembly Task Force on Food, Farm, and Nutrition Policy. She spoke primarily on the role of state policy in preventing childhood obesity at school. She also presented information about community programs for childhood obesity prevention. Her testimony is an example of how faculty members and professional staff from the College of Human Ecology provide technical expertise to inform policy development in issues of public health.

Wolfe collaborates with county educators in Cornell Cooperative Extension's Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program to develop programs that address childhood obesity prevention within the state. She also chairs the statewide coalition, New York State Action for Healthy Kids, part of a national initiative to improve the health and education performance of children through better nutrition and physical activity in schools.

"The childhood obesity epidemic is an indicator of underlying poor nutrition habits and low physical activity," Wolfe testified. "We need the state to take leadership in the battle to combat the rising rates of childhood obesity and its complications, such as diabetes in children as young as 11. This leadership needs to include policy and funding."

In her comments on the role of state policy in preventing childhood obesity at school, Wolfe focused on physical education, beverages in school vending machines, and a la carte items and snack times.

"Recent research suggests a correlation not only between physical activity and obesity but also between physical activity in children and improved learning," she said. She cited information from several studies indicating that academic achievement improves even when increased time for physical education reduces the time for academics. "Given the data, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are recommending daily physical education on a national basis." Wolfe testified.

New York State mandates 120 minutes of physical education per week for children in school. However, there is a lack of enforcement, Wolfe said, noting results of research she conducted in 1991. Schools that offered at least the mandated 120 minutes of physical education per week had significantly lower rates of student obesity than schools that did not provide the required physical education, even after adjusting for differences in socioeconomic status. "We need not only to enforce the mandate, but we also need to provide funding and incentives to help schools offer more physical education," Wolfe testified. She recommended that physical education programs focus on fitness skills and activities that can be continued throughout a lifetime and that after-school sports programs be expanded.

Wolfe explained that sweetened beverages increasingly are available to students both during and after school, including during lunch (although officially this is banned), and that vending machines in schools may be contributing inadvertently to childhood obesity. She cited research suggesting that the consumption of soda, in particular, may contribute to childhood obesity. "Most adolescents--65 percent of the girls and 74 percent of the boys--consume soft drinks daily," Wolfe said. "Currently, soft drinks constitute the leading source of added sugars in the diet of adolescents, exceeding the daily limits for total added sugar consumption recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture."

Wolfe told the Assembly task force that she supports the legislative bill (A6563/S4556) expanding the ban on soda in school vending machines, recommending the bill be revised to ban all highly sugar-sweetened beverages, not just soda. …