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political and social environment is the issue of childhood obesity and the extent to which schools should play a proactive role in modifying children's eating habits. "Between 1980 and 2004, the prevalence of overweight in children (6 -- 11 years) increased from 6.5% to 18.8% and in adolescents (12 -- 19 years) increased from 5.0% to 17.4%" (Fitzgibbon & Beech 2009). Some people believe that a more active role is needed by our nation's schools, regarding American children's eating and exercise habits. On the other hand, many parents stress the psychological damage that being overly fixated on weight can cause. They believe that schools should teach children that it is what is inside that matters, rather than the outside, and that children's eating habits should be left in the hands of the parents. I believe that a balanced approach is necessary. On one hand, it is essential that children learn to feel good about themselves, regardless of what they weigh. "Some have speculated that the public health emphasis on obesity contributes to an exaggeration of the health consequences, an increase in discrimination against and stigmatization of obese people, and an increase in disordered eating behavior" (Fitzgibbon & Beech 2009). On the other hand, being overweight can severely limit the child's ability to have a high-quality life of any kind, because of the devastating impact of heart disease, diabetes, and other health conditions.
Studies have shown that parents consistently see their children as 'normal' even when their children are medically overweight (Fitzgibbon & Beech 2011). This is particularly true of parents who come from cultures where having a slightly overweight child is considered to be 'good' or a healthy sign of a family's prosperity. One proposed method to counteract this has been using BMI (body mass index) screening in school settings. Parents have been very resistant to this. However, a realistic apprehension of a child's body weight and size is essential if children are able to reach medically normal weights, given that the parents must be 'on board' in terms of the eating habits they foster at home. However, estimating BMI for children can be difficult. "The normal and healthy BMI changes in terms of percentiles as kids grow and the ratio of bone to muscle changes. So if health care providers use BMI, it's important to use a BMI percent for age rather than just the absolute number against the adult chart" (Gordon 2009). Even for adults, BMI is a controversial measurement, because adults with a high degree of muscle mass can seem to have high BMIs vs. those who do not. Given the psychological damage when a child learns he or she is ranked as overweight or obese, BMI measurements within the school may not have enough of a positive impact to justify the negative harms.
However, creating a health-promoting, rather than an obesity-promoting environment in the school does seem to be a worthy aim. School lunches that are available to students are almost always highly caloric and have a disproportionate amount of 'junk' foods. The guidelines about what should be in a school lunch remain unchanged from an era where dieticians were more concerned that students were getting enough to eat at lunch, rather than too much. The focus remains keeping certain foods in (all meals must have a mandatory amount of starch as well as vegetables) rather than keeping calories down. Also, "nutritional quality varies widely from district to district, but according to the USDA a typical school lunch far exceeds the recommended 500 milligrams of sodium; some districts, in fact, serve lunches with more than 1,000 milligrams. The USDA also reports that less than a third of schools stay below the recommended standard for fat content in their meals" (Larsen 2010:1).
Chicken nuggets and pizza are popular offerings at most school cafeteria, as is chocolate milk, and many schools even offer a la carte fast food menu items from popular chains. Attempting to change this menu often meets with resistance, not just from children and the companies that provide such products, but also from parents. For example, "flavored milk's defenders can be found among the ranks of parents who fear that their children will miss out on crucial vitamin D and calcium because they won't drink the unsweetened variety" (Larsen 2010:4). Opponents of reform state that children will not eat 'healthy' foods and it is important that children eat, first and foremost. "The USDA estimates that many school children get as much as 50% of their calories at school" (Black 2010). But that is all the more reason that the calories that are dispensed should be healthy calories. One study "of more than 1,000 sixth-graders in Michigan found that children who regularly ate school lunch were 29% more likely to be obese than those who brought lunch from home" (Black 2010).
However, some school districts have gone to extremes, banning bake sales, birthday celebrations and even prohibiting children from bringing food from home. This only fosters resistance to the attitude that healthy eating is something joyless, and means abandoning cupcakes and cookies in favor of carrot sticks. Instead of focusing on special occasion food, a balance is needed. School food needs to be kid-friendly, but there must be real, nutritional substance to the food, and pure junk food should not be offered. Today, "school lunches hardly resemble real food," when "they serve items such as chicken nuggets, which are highly processed, with additives and preservatives, and list more than 30 ingredients instead of just chicken" (Larsen 2011:1).
These food items are not simply bad for children's health on a daily basis -- children who eat better food and exercise have improved concentration and do better in school, according to a recent study of over five thousand Canadian schoolchildren. "Students with an increased fruit and vegetable intake and less caloric intake from fat were significantly less likely to fail the literacy assessment. Relative to students in the group with the lowest DQI-I scores, students in the group with the best scores were 41% less likely to fail the literacy assessment" ("Children with healthier diets do better in school, study suggests," ScienceDaily, 2008).
However, changes in school lunches alone cannot stem the tide of childhood obesity. We must be realistic as a society about that ways to address obesity, because there is no single solution. Sharing family meals together, for example, has been strongly correlated with improved school performance, lower rates of obesity and other eating disorders, and improved psychological health in general (Fiese & Schwartz 2008). The school's role in decreasing obesity should not be presented as a panacea. Parents must take proactive steps to learn about nutrition, make time for healthy meals that are not eaten in the back seat of a car, and to encourage children to exercise. They must also set a strong example themselves in their own eating behaviors.
This can be difficult for parents who are trying to feed families on a budget, however, and who live in unsafe areas where children cannot play outside. Ultimately, larger societal issues must be addressed, such as the economic and political conditions that make unhealthy foods cheaper than healthy foods, including agricultural subsides and the widening discrepancies between high and low-income earners. This does not mean the role that school lunches play in shaping children's dietary habits should be ignored. Schools can have an important role in social engineering of American children's dietary habits. But schools are only one piece of the puzzle in addressing the problem of childhood obesity. It is a problem with many contributing causes, and there is no single solution.
Black, Jane. "Improving school food is not the answer." Slate. 2011. [12 Dec 2011]
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