Schools, Parents Team Up Against Childhood Obesity

In California's Chula Vista school district — and nationwide — schools are fighting the "battle of the bulge" in what they consider to be an effective and informative way. Every two years, all elementary-aged students are weighed on a scale that is digital and can only be read by specially trained technicians at a remote display. The students' heights are also taken so that each child's body mass index can be calculated.

This data is part of what is called surveillance activity. The idea is to identify which students are overweight or obese in order to follow the physical well-being of the district's school-aged children. It is agreed by health experts and parents alike that childhood obesity is a condition which can lead to adult or childhood diabetes and heart disease. Other schools gather the same information, but advise parents directly if their child is at risk in what have been dubbed "fat letters".

When nearly 25,000 students were measured in 2010, it discovered about 40 percent of its children were obese or overweight.

Officials used the data to make a color-coded obesity map of the district and showed the community. Instead of creating a stir, the information acted as a distress call, bringing in help. Schools boosted partnerships with doctors. They planted gardens, banned cupcakes at school birthdays, and tracked kids' activity levels.

Some parents have seen dramatic results because of this shared information. Lifestyle changes have come from this exchange of data. Not all parents think the idea is free of negative implication. One mother, whose child is a martial arts student, got a letter from the school warning that her daughter's BMI was high. The mother, who was a spokesman for the National Eating Disorder Association, said her daughter was not upset by the letter, since she had been educated as to the screenings limitations. The mother cautioned, however, that many children would be upset by receiving such a letter.

Arkansas, in 2003, was the first state to include school-based screening of BMIs. Since then, schools across the nation have used the Arkansas model as a prototype for their own anti-obesity campaigns. In Chula Vista, when mapping the locations of areas with the highest numbers of obese children, the districts discovered that the locations that were the poorest had the highest number of fast-food restaurants and the lowest number of parks — a combination that made for the places with the most overweight students.

Another solution for the obesity crisis among students is to improve the quality of school lunches. James Costas and television personality Rachel Ray joined to make a documentary, Lunch Hour, about the poor meals being turned out by school cafeterias.

Many kids already have blockages in their hearts by the time they graduate high school. "Kids as young as 9 are taking cholesterol medicines trying to clean out their arteries," said Rachael Ray. "We did that to them."

Wisconsin is considering adopting the program Get Youth Moving, GYM, to boost the physical education program in elementary schools. Instead of the three times a week program that is in place, the lawmakers, if they decide to approve GYM, will be increasing P.E. classes to 30 minutes a day. The idea is that more activity improves a child's overall health and can improve academic performance. Physically fit kids are also better behaved in the classroom setting.

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