Should Schools Be Responsible for Childhood Obesity Prevention?

How educators are struggling to keep junk food out of classrooms, and why it matters if schools become the frontline in the fight against childhood obesity
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With the nation's childhood obesity rate triple what it was 30 years ago for adolescents, expectations that schools will do more to help keep students healthy continue to rise. But even as the U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to ban campus junk food sales, First Lady Michelle Obama touts the benefits of exercise and cafeteria turkey tacos, and school districts struggle to meet the more rigorous new federal nutrition standards, a larger question looms: How much can educators really do to influence a student's wellness?

Author Roxanna Elden, who teaches high school English in Miami, Fla., said that while she supports the feds' campus junk food ban - which will take effect in the fall of 2014 --there isn't much schools can do to control the contents of the lunchboxes kids bring from home.

When she taught fourth grade in Houston a few years ago, Flamin' Hot Cheetos were particularly popular among her students so Elden decided to use them as part of a lesson on how to read nutritional labels. (It's worth noting some school districts already prohibit kids from bringing the snack food to campus.) Her lecture didn't exactly go as planned.

"I tried to emphasize how bad this particular food was for your health," Elden told me. "After the lesson the kids asked if they could eat the bag of Hot Cheetos. It turns out that as I was giving my passionate speech, they were gazing longingly at the bag and mostly thinking, 'Mmmm, Hot Cheetos.'"

While it might indeed be tough to get kids to choose carrots over Cheetos, there's a case to be made that the public sees schools as sharing that responsibility with parents. In April, Kaiser Permanente conducted a nationwide survey and found that 90 percent of respondents believed schools should "play a role in reducing obesity in their community" and 64 percent supported it being "a major role." Respondents in the same survey also showed strong support for the stricter new guidelines for federally funded school meals and for limiting students' access to junk food on campus.

The American Medical Association has recommended that children in grades one-12 be taught about the dangers of obesity and supported using revenue from proposed taxes on sugary sodas to help schools pay for such educational programs. The AMA suggested its own members volunteer to help schools implement the program. But even with that kind of goodwill effort, schools would likely struggle in the short term to find time in an already crowded academic calendar for yet another instructional mandate. On the upside, many school districts have already initiated aggressive campaigns to address student health, and many have added extracurricular programs aimed at encouraging entire families to be more active and make smarter food choices.

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Emily Richmond is the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. She was previously the education reporter for the Las Vegas Sun.

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