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School Management        < Previous        Next >



How Schools Make Kids Fat


Q. Everyone's concerned about the wave of obesity in our kids. Do parents deserve the blame?


To the extent that genetics plays a role in obesity, yes. To the extent that parents have allowed schools to make certain changes that haven't been the greatest for children's health, then yes, parents are to blame. To the extent that many of them haven't been making good nutritional and fitness choices at home, and are bad role models, then yes, parents are to blame.


But they can reverse course with a few changes that will improve children's nutrition and increase their activity level. Correcting what schools themselves do to contribute to the obesity epidemic is much harder.


Just as big a culprit as the home environment may well be the school environment. Holding the line on school spending, better nutritional practices and a firm commitment to fitness and exercise at school would go a long way.


What does cutting school spending have to do with fat kids? Families are too busy these days. Kids are bored and lonely after school. As a society, we need to help parents carve out more time to carefully nurture and rear their children, instead of out-sourcing them so much, including their nutritional needs, to the fast-food world. The lion's share of our tax bill is for public schools. If schools would sharply reduce school spending on non-classroom spending for non-essentials, we could reduce taxes. If we could reduce taxes, fewer moms would have to work full-time just to keep the family afloat.


If more moms could stay home more hours during the day, especially the crucial after-school hours, and not be so tired and frazzled on the evenings and weekends, then they'd have more time to plan, shop and cook more nutritious meals. Then more kids could enjoy a real childhood at home, instead of being in a day-care or latchkey situation with a slam-dunk fast-food dinner every night. Children really, really need this. We all know a lot of people eat to make up for the love and attention that they're missing. Cut school spending and cut taxes, and we could give more kids what they need.


Just as important, if there's a mom or dad in the home telling kids to quit watching TV and get outside and play, or to turn off the video games or computer, it would go a long way toward breaking sedentary habits of our kids today. More adults in the houses after school also would make neighborhoods safer for outside play, with more time for neighborliness, and more eyes and ears watching out for neighborhood kids to protect them from gangs, molesters and abductors.


Moms who aren't as busy with full-time jobs also have more time to cook nutritious meals with fresh ingredients, and are there to supervise snacking. It could be that the guilt caused by the rushed schedule causes Moms to buy cookies, pop, chips and candy for after-school snacks since they aren't there to show their love in person.

Beyond cutting spending, there are other factors at play in the dramatic reduction of childhood activity in America over the past three or four generations. One has been the consolidation of schools and school districts, necessitating use of buses, reducing opportunities for play before and after school since kids live so far apart, and making the popular sports at the high school and junior high levels the special provinces of elite athletes, ruling out most kids from being able to compete.


Then there's the junk food in school cafeterias, vending machines that sell pop and candy, and concession stands at school-sponsored events that mostly sell junk foods.


Many teachers distribute candy and other junk foods as rewards and for all kinds of occasions, and there's lots of eating in class in many schools, in stark contrast to yesteryear, when there was none.


It's rather sad when school administrators and parent groups decide to sell candy to raise money for various projects, or when administrators allow candy bars to be sold after school, denying the health hazards because the principal's special projects fund gets a handsome percentage of the candy profits.


Then there's the way many schools have "dumbed down" recess and forced kids NOT to play actively and exercise. Educators also have a disturbing bias AGAINST competition, so they've banned games where kids keep score in many places. But kids love to compete. Those who don't distinguish themselves in the classroom need the self-esteem boost that comes from being able to score in a playground soccer game and so forth. Taking competition away takes the thrill away, so they don't play. Often, they turn to food.


Greed also plays a role. Schools can make money by selling off playground land for real estate development, and developers love to develop every square inch of land with houses and businesses. Then kids don't have any empty lots or playgrounds in which to stretch their legs.


See how complex it is? It really isn't just a matter of sending carrots and celery with that sack lunch every day.


Now, it should be noted that school nutrition programs have come a long, long way in recent years to get rid of the high-calorie, low-nutrition products in favor of good proteins and salad bars and the like. It's pretty hard to blame the lunch ladies for the obesity epidemic; we're too busy blaming them for dishes like "mystery meat" and "cafeteria surprise," anyway.


One final note: we really need to be teaching young people that in the future, when they start their families, it's important to breastfeed a baby through the first year. One of the biggest health benefits of breastfeeding is a demonstrated lesser risk of obesity.


Homework: Here's a good article on things that school administrators can do to help in the fight against childhood fat.


By Susan Darst Williams School Management 08 2008



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