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Anti-Obesity Measures Are Working for Some Schools

EMMAUS, PA — With schools across the country trying to combat the childhood obesity crisis through various programs, early results of some of those efforts are in, and they are mixed.

Take the East Penn School District in Emmaus, PA. After a highly publicized and criticized anti-obesity program — which included the district sending confidential letters to parents, putting better choices in vending machines and creating walking clubs — the district is now reporting a success, and a pretty large one at that. School district records show an 18 percent decrease in the number of overweight students and a 50 percent decrease in the number of underweight students during the past school year.

The story isn't quite so clear in Los Angeles schools though.

After a six-month ban on all junk food in secondary public schools, and about a 60 percent decrease in revenue, school district administrators aren't declaring a victory, but they're not throwing in the towel either.

As of July 1, 2004, the school district replaced junk food with healthier fare in the school store and in vending machines on campuses. Funding has become an issue though since most schools receive revenue from the profits of food sales.

“We're looking at this as more of a health issue than as an economic one,” Terri Minami, director of school fiscal services of the LA Unified School District, said. “I have a feeling that the ban will be permanent. Sales [of the healthier food] are gradually picking up, just one,” Terri Minami, director of school fiscal services of the LA Unified School District, said. “I have a feeling that the ban will be permanent. Sales [of the healthier food] are gradually picking up, just very, very slowly.” However, she said, the school district is optimistic that sales of healthier food will increase once students adjust to the change.

The ban was put into effect after the school board passed an obesity prevention motion, Minami said. The motion also included a plan for leadership classes led by students to promote healthier snacks and beverages, and a physical activity component.

Little research has been published on the effect that cutting out junk food has on school revenues; however, a study in the American Journal of Public Health showed that in elementary and middle schools where administrators reduced the price of healthier foods, those foods were purchased more frequently with no net loss in income.

Whatever the cost, research shows that schools can't afford to ignore the problem.

The report, “The Learning Connection: The Value of Improving Nutrition and Physical Activity in Our Schools,” (released by Action for Health Kids) summarizes a number of studies showing that poor nutrition, inactivity and extra weight can have a negative effect on student achievement and that each year schools may be losing significant funding due to these problems.

Although the report cautions that more research is needed, it highlights research that shows schools with a high percentage of students that aren't routinely active or don't eat well had smaller gains in tests scores than other schools and that well-nourished students who skip breakfast perform worse on tests and have poor concentration. The report also states that children not getting adequate nutrients have lower test scores, increased absenteeism, difficulty concentrating and lower energy levels. It adds that physical activity programs are linked to strong academic achievement and that students participating in daily physical education have better attendance rates, a more positive attitude about school and superior academic performance.

“Schools have the unique opportunity — even the responsibility — to teach and model healthful eating and physical activity, both in theory and in practice,” said David Satcher, former U.S. surgeon general, in a release. Satcher is the founding chair of the non-profit Action for Healthy Kids, a public-private partnership of more than 40 national organizations and government agencies that represent education, health, fitness and nutrition.

Other research shows what schools can do to curb obesity. As presented at the North American Association for the Study of Obesity's (NAASO) Annual Scientific Meeting in Las Vegas, a handful of studies showed that school-based programs could help children lose weight or at least avoid putting it on.

In the first year of a three-year study, a school-based fitness program, the FitKid Project at the Medical College of Georgia, showed that with 80 minutes of physical activity (based on acquiring motor skills through sports and 40 minutes of vigorous exercise with heart rates above 150 beats per minute), students could increase their bone density, improve their cardiovascular fitness, have a smaller increase in their waist circumference and a decrease in body fat.

Over a school year, third-graders in Augusta-Richmond County who participated in at least 40 percent of the daily, after-school classes saw a 0.7 percent decrease in their body fat, compared to a 0.1 increase in body fat by other kids who did not participate. Those who were there for 80 percent of classes saw a 1.1 percent drop.

Another study presented at the conference calculated the potential calorie-saving effects of decreasing middle school snack-bar portion sizes to ‘pre-supersize’ levels. By using sales data from 23 Texas middle school snack bars, researchers found that students could have consumed an average of 45 fewer calories a day if snack bars sold 1-ounce bags of chips instead of 3.75-ounce bags, and 12-ounce cans of sweetened drinks rather than 20-ounce bottles. This simple switch could prevent up to two pounds of excess weight gain per child.

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