Schools Can Help with Childhood Obesity

By Becky González-Campoy

The message is simple. Eat more fruits and vegetables. Control portion size. Move your body regularly and often. Follow these steps and you reduce the risk of obesity and its complications. So why are today’s children more likely to die at a younger age than their parents? They haven’t been getting the message. Not at home. Not at school. Not in the media.

In theory, the solution is also simple. Teach children and their families about how to live healthy lifestyles and motivate them to apply what they learn. The key is to involve kids in the process both at home and at school. Here’s how.

Start by modeling healthy behavior yourself. Take kids shopping for groceries. Have them select food for your family. Teach them how to read nutrition labels. Introduce them to many tastes and textures. Make time to be physically active together. Encourage your kids to choose activities they can do all of their lives.

Get involved with promoting healthy living at your child’s school. The Child Nutrition and WIC [Women, Infants, and Children] Reauthorization Act of 2004 requires all school districts that receive federal funding from the school lunch program to have a wellness policy in place. The purpose of this policy is to ensure that school environments promote and protect students’ health, well-being, and ability to learn by supporting healthy eating and physical activity. It’s also designed to promote employee wellness to improve productivity and reduce rising healthcare costs.

I am a parent of three children ages 22, 19, and 16. I am also a former school board member from a suburban district in Minnesota. I am currently helping this school district to get its Wellness Policy up and running. Most schools should have a Wellness Advisory Committee that oversees activities to promote and sustain wellness for students and staff. This group provides a valuable opportunity for collaboration among parents, teachers, administrators, community members and students to develop effective methods for promoting wellness.

Before our Wellness Committee could plan its strategy for improving health, each school had to determine its strengths and weaknesses. We used an online assessment tool called the Healthy School Builder (see box) to collect baseline data about our school’s breakfast/lunch programs, health and physical education curriculum, and current wellness practices, among other things. This information helped each school create an individualized plan to meet the gold standard set forth by the Healthy School Builder.

Ongoing communication is an essential part of any strategic plan to bring about change. Knowing we have several audiences we must educate and motivate, we use several avenues to deliver wellness information and resources:

  • Posters and parent newsletters. The district’s wellness liaison collects and distributes posters and healthy living tips via e-mail to key staff at each school. Fruits and vegetables might be featured one month; how to beat stress might be featured another month. Teachers can display the posters in classrooms or common areas. Principals can include the healthy living tips in their newsletters to families.
  • District Web site. The district Web site provides a wellness home page with links to each school’s wellness page. We created a name for this link that started with a letter near the beginning of the alphabet so visitors would be sure to see it – Center for Wellness. Here parents and staff can learn about the latest wellness activities at each school and find resources to help them lead healthier lifestyles.
  • School-wide announcements. Principals and students deliver healthy living tips during daily announcements.

Among the most valuable contributions Wellness Advisory Committee members provide is feedback regarding how effective the current activities are and how we can improve the program. I pushed hard to include secondary students on our committee for two reasons: First, almost no resources for reaching secondary students exist – most youth wellness programs are geared toward children in pre-school through 6th grade. Second, students know best how to reach their peers.

The students on our Wellness Committee provide the adult members with a reality check. School announcements at the high school? No one listens to them. Abundant healthy options at lunch? Not so much. We need vegetarian options. We need intra-mural sports opportunities. Reach us through media we actually use. Their input prompted a student survey of lunch menu options and suggestions for improvement. Student feedback also led us to consider other venues to deliver the healthy lifestyle message. Students spend time on Facebook, not the district Web site. They use text messages regularly. We’re now exploring the use of Twitter to send quick healthy living messages to students and others who spend time on their cell phones or on the Internet.

We’re also learning the value of working with other schools and health agencies. Five districts in northern Dakota County, Minnesota, are working together with the Dakota County Public Health Department on a 5-year grant to promote eating more fruits and vegetables at school and at home. Through this alliance, we connected with Catalyst, a group that helps students lead the way to improving health among their peers.

We invited Catalyst members to work with students at our high school, to help us prepare our strategic plan to boost the consumption of fruits and vegetables. The group is working on a student-oriented video that schools can run on monitors mounted in their hallways and cafeterias. The students will develop a healthy living mentoring program for elementary students as well.

We’ve replaced soda with water in the vending machines. No more super-sized bottles of Mountain Dew. Our lunches include more salads, fruits, baked foods instead of fried foods, and smaller portions. No more sugary drinks and donuts to start the day for students.

Our toughest sell? Getting the adults to improve their nutrition and increase their physical activity. Again, feedback from Wellness Committee members proved to be very valuable. Principals serving on the Committee pointed out that teachers are more likely to listen to their peers rather than to district administrators. So our approach is similar with staff as it is with students – encourage teachers with a passion for healthy living to inspire others through example. We encourage anyone with a great idea to run with it. As a result, we are seeing the start-up of special interest groups, such as walking clubs and yoga classes.

Incorporating health promotion in schools requires teachers to understand its importance. Teachers are often overloaded with other demands. Here, we focus on research that links good health to solid student performance. Healthy kids are better able to learn than those who are poorly nourished and sedentary.

Our efforts to promote wellness extend to school fundraisers and concessions at athletic events. We are slowly replacing candy sales with wrapping paper, plants, school spirit wear, and other options. The challenge is to convince those whose programs depend on these sales that these alternatives make as much money. Granola bars, fruit, and water are making their way onto the menus of the concession stands.

Call your school to find out what your district is doing to promote healthy living and ask how you can join the effort. It’s that simple.

Becky González-Campoy is Chief Operating Officer of the Minnesota Center for Obesity, Metabolism and Endocrinology (MNCOME), PA and Executive Director of MNCOME Foundation. Becky holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Macalester College (1983), St. Paul. She’s a Past President of the Minnesota Medical Association Alliance and is a former member of the Board of Education for Independent School District 197 (West St. Paul/Mendota Heights). She currently is working with the school district to implement its Wellness Policy.