Food for Thought: Is a French Fry a Vegetable? the Cost of Healthy Foods and the Lack of Physical Activity among Children and Teenagers Are Fueling the Obesity Epidemic

By Esteves, Tammy | The Public Manager, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Food for Thought: Is a French Fry a Vegetable? the Cost of Healthy Foods and the Lack of Physical Activity among Children and Teenagers Are Fueling the Obesity Epidemic


Esteves, Tammy, The Public Manager


Bottom line? Too many people cannot afford to eat healthy. Well, the truth is they can't afford not to eat healthy, but eating healthy foods is too expensive. A grocery store I was in recently had a nice display of personal-size cantaloupes with a sign for $1.49. What wasn't so well displayed on the sign was that the price was $1.49 per pound. One mini personal cantaloupe really cost $6.20. Likewise, a small bag of black grapes came to $7.60. These were at a basic grocery store and not organic produce. "I can't afford these prices," one mother said to a friend. "I can buy two boxes of fruit snacks for what it would cost me for one small serving of fresh fruit."

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Improving Health in Children Takes Center Stage

In 2010, the television show Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution brought the issue of school and family nutrition to the forefront of public consciousness. Oliver accomplished a shock effect when he reported that this current generation may very well be the first not expected to outlive their parents.

At the time, West Virginia was statistically one of the unhealthiest states with the most obese residents. Oliver chose to film his first program there as he attempted to help families become healthy at home--and at schools because that is where many kids develop their eating habits. He met with a significant amount of resistance from students, as well as cafeteria workers and administrators who have to follow specific dietary guidelines.

Oliver expressed disbelief when he was told he could not serve a veggiefilled stir-fry containing fresh vegetables because it lacked the minimum number of vegetables required by state-mandated guidelines. Instead, he was asked to alter the dish to include french fries, which counted as a "vegetable." Go figure.

Also in 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama launched an initiative focusing on fitness and food: Let's Move: America's Move to Raise a Healthier Generation of Kids. The First Lady has often been quoted as saying that America won't solve its problems just by passing laws in Washington, D.C. Instead, her initiative brings together states and communities, as well as nonprofit and for-profit private sectors, in partnership as a new independent foundation: Partnership for a Healthier America.

To be sure, the statistics are grim. As noted in a press release for Let's Move!, research from the Centers for Disease Control reports that childhood obesity rates in America have tripled over the past three decades, as nearly one in three children are overweight or obese.

CDC research also states that one-third of all children born in 2000 or later will suffer from diabetes at some point in their lives, and many others will face chronic obesityrelated health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and asthma. A more recent CDC study put the healthcare costs of obesity-related diseases at $147 billion per year.

We know that stopping childhood obesity isn't just the job of government, or doctors, or community organizations. We all have a role to play. Communities have been the driving force behind Let's Move! People and organizations from all over the United States, such as Trust for America's Health (TFAH) and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, have stepped up. Companies such as Wal-Mart have also joined the cause by requiring their stores to sell food grown within a certain radius of the store.

Choose Sustainability to Improve Safety and Security

The obesity epidemic is really weighing the nation down. Indeed, our increasing size affects the nation's safety and security.

Obesity is now one of the most common disqualifiers for military service. For example, according to the Federal Register, effective December 1, 2011, the United States Coast Guard will amend regulations that govern the maximum weight and number of passengers for vessel safety, including increasing the assumed average weight per person (AAWPP) from 140 to 185 pounds.

The transportation industry is rethinking safety regulations for buses and other vehicles, as are elevator companies.

The list of proposed and pending, legislation is long. Dealing with obesity-related healthcare costs is part of the yet-to-be-implemented healthcare overhaul, a law enacted in part to diminish the drag of healthcare costs on the national economy.

Individuals, Farms, Schools, and Communities Step Up to the Plate Communities and individual leaders across the country are not waiting for government to mandate action; they see the benefits of changes today. Here are a few highlights:

* King County Steps to Health is a federally funded program lead by community partners and Public Health agencies in Seattle and King County. The program focuses on the areas of asthma, diabetes, obesity, nutrition, and physical activity.

* Diana Johnson of Auburn, Washington, was distraught at the statistics in her community, which has higher obesity rates than all the other communities in King County combined. In 2010, she partnered with the City of Auburn and the Auburn Valley YMCA to develop the Healthy Cooking Program, which provides free classes to educate community members about nutrition, preventing diabetes and obesity, and cooking healthy meals on a tight budget. The program partners with other organizations, including the Auburn International Farmer's Market.

* Farmers markets are stepping up to the plate to not only improve the health of our communities, but also to reduce our carbon footprints. For example, the Farm to School program connects schools (K-12) and local farms with the objectives of serving healthy meals in school cafeterias; improving student nutrition; providing agriculture, health, and nutrition education opportunities; and supporting local and regional farmers. According to the Farm to School website, there are currently 48 states with operational programs, for a total of 2,257 programs covering 9,629 schools.

Physical Education on the Chopping Block

Healthy food, however, is just one side of the childhood obesity issue. The lack of physical activity is also to blame, as many students spend most of their day sitting in a classroom, and will go home to watch television, surf the net, or play video games. This issue will only increase as budget woes force more schools to cut budgets for nonacademic programming, such as physical education courses.

In March 2011, South Carolina proposed cutting millions of dollars from physical education programs to meet its budget crisis. However, such programs as the Carol M. White Physical Education Program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Education, is providing PEP grants to make up for some of the lost funds. However, grants are usually one-time only, resulting in a temporary band-aid to the problem.

Published by the American Association of Physical Activity and Recreation (AAPAR), 2010 Shape of the Nation Report: Status of Physical Education in the USA, finds some incremental improvements, but also details some startling and disturbing trends. The report reveals that many schools are not offering physical education courses during the school day. According to AAPAR's study, in 1991, 42 percent of students attended daily physical education classes; by 2003, this number had fallen to 28 percent. In addition, only 18 percent of states require elementary schools to provide daily recess.

Only five states (Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Vermont) currently require physical education in every grade K-12; New Jersey and Rhode Island require in every grade 1-12. Most schools allow some type of waiver to get out of physical education, and 43 percent of states allowed individuals to meet the physical education requirements by taking online physical education courses.

Also reported by AAPAR is that only 48.4 percent of schools offer intramural activities, and many other programs are expensive for parents. It is interesting to note that eight of the 10 states with the highest obesity rates are in the south, as are nine of the 10 states with the highest rates of poverty.

NFL, Video Games, and Governors Make Strides

There is some movement forward in the states and schools, including a boost in activity from private sponsors. Some examples:

* Video game consoles from Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360 with Kinect, and Sony PlayStation Move offer games that require physical activity by players.

* The National Football League (NFL) and the American Heart Association have teamed up to create the NFL PLAY 60 Challenge (formerly What Moves U), a program that inspires kids to get the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity a day in school and at home. When schools register to participate in the six-week challenge, they receive details on how to sign up students and ideas on how to incorporate physical fitness in the classroom year-round. After participating in the challenge, the NFL will continue to provide resources to help school leaders support physical activity among students through the help of such organizations as the Alliance for a Healthier Generation's Healthy Schools Program.

* The State of Washington started the Washington Health Foundation as part of the Healthiest State in the Nation campaign, which holds an annual competition--the Governor's Health Bowl. This competition targets fitness activity and health knowledge. This campaign helped Washington rank no. 10 in 2010, with 40,000 individuals, 1,200 organizations, and 400 schools involved in the program, which originally started in 2005.

Many schools are not serving healthy food. Let's continue to partner together to create a better, more sustainable future for our children and our communities. Focusing on our children's lives and health now can improve the nation's bottom line in the long run. To me, a good future for America's children is priceless.

Tammy Esteves, PhD, is assistant professor in public administration at Troy University. Contact her at tlesteves@troy.edu.

RELATED ARTICLE: Resources for Healthy Living.

Let's Move: America's Move to Raise a Healthier Generation of Kids

www.letsmove.gov

Let's Move! is a comprehensive initiative, launched by First Lady Michelle Obama, dedicated to solving the problem of obesity within a generation, so that children born today will grow up healthier and able to pursue their dreams.

Partnership for a Healthier America

www.ahealthieramerica.org

Partnership for a Healthier America supports the First Lady's Let's Move! program by encouraging, tracking, and communicating commitments to healthier lifestyles from partner organizations.

Farm to School

www.farmtoschool.org

Farm to School connects schools (K-12) and local farms with the objectives of serving healthy meals in school cafeterias, improving student nutrition, providing agriculture, health, and nutrition education opportunities, and supporting local and regional farmers.

Carol M. White Physical Education Program

www2.ed.gov/programs/whitephysed/index.html

The Carol M. White Physical Education Program provides PEP grants to LEAs and community-based organizations (CBOs) to initiate, expand, or enhance physical education programs, including after-school programs, for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Grant recipients must implement programs that help students make progress toward meeting state standards.

Healthy Schools Program

www.healthiergeneration.org/schools.aspx

Produced by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, the Healthy Schools Program supports more than 10,000 schools across the United States in their efforts to create environments where physical activity and healthy eating are accessible and encouraged.

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