We Need to See the Third 'E'

Several years ago, at a high school in a metro Atlanta county, a football coach ran a junk food canteen out of his dilapidated office. Almost every day, an obese girl bought honey-buns around lunchtime. She would leave the room, tear open the wrapper, gobble several bites, toss the cellophane onto the stairwell, huff and puff up to the top of the north wing landing, waddle down to the media center and plop into a pillow chair for a short nap. Then amble off to the girls’ restroom.

When I gently cautioned her against littering the stairs, she got angry and up-braided me so that I could not even tentatively discuss her health.

She quit school; the coach was fired for personally stashing some of the junk food funds. No one ever confronted the issues of health, junk food, honesty, wellness, sanitation or obesity.

This story, and the experiences of many students in middle and high schools, can segue easily into issues relating to obesity (from the Latin obesus, meaning fat). Much has been written about childhood obesity since the problem increased significantly during the late 1990s.

Most of the recent legislative focus on obesity, including the First Lady’s project “Let’s Move,” is concerned with nutrition education and physical activity. Yet, the almost universal focus on better nutrition and more exercise overlooks one critical health component in the obesity-health discussion.

The element almost no one talks or writes about is the importance of healthy elimination in the fight for better health and against obesity. Talk of toiletry is still taboo, especially with public school educators and students in middle and high schools.

We know that obesity is a problem. In fact, it has joined other issues such as teenage pregnancy, drugs, HIV and AIDS, to make what could be called “The Big Five.”

In any event, too many schools teach a big-five approach in their health resource materials, and now obesity is definitely included as part of our health problems.

I agree that kids with excessive body fat percentage and body mass index (BMI) are a major concern. I also concede that better nutrition education and physical activity are two remedies. Students in middle and high school, the age I concentrate on with Project CLEAN, need to eat better and exercise more.

Under the rubric of a “Wellness Policy,” each school district in the nation is supposed to have addressed issues of nutrition and physical exertion since 2006. Often, that school board policy is labeled policy “EEE,” when following standard school board policy nomenclature.

We can agree obesity is a problem and that digesting more healthy food and spending more active time are remedies. So what has been overlooked in this health picture, in these wellness policies from 2006? Healthy elimination — that is, the effect of eating more broccoli and doing more aerobics on our personal sanitation in school restrooms. We still don’t talk about the toiletry; it is still a taboo.

The girl in the public school example above ate poorly and hardly exercised; her personal elimination in school restrooms was affected. Just so, when all students eat better and exercise more, their obesity and personal sanitation are affected.

Hardly anyone discusses this third “E” in the policy EEE — Eat better, Exercise more and Eliminate in safe, clean, hygienic school restrooms.

A new section on wellness was included in a federal law, which passed in December 2010. The “Local School Wellness Policy” is in The Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act (Public Law 111-296, section 204), and it states nutrition guidelines should “promote student health and reduce childhood obesity.” Now is the time for more comprehensive school board wellness policies.

Wellness guidelines and policies need to address the issue of students use of safe, clean and hygienic restrooms in schools, and other public restrooms in the community, such as those in libraries, parks, recreation centers and swimming pool complexes. After all, 11- to 18-year-old students are obese in a community, not just in school or at home.

Student sanitation must now be part of any wellness policy. Elimination is the third E. We would be blind to miss the E during an eye exam. We have to see the third E — elimination — as it relates to eating better and exercising more.

All of us, even the President’s wife, need to see the connection between eating, exercising and eliminating in order to have healthy students.

Tom Keating, Ph.D., career educator, speaks, writes, trains and advocates for 11- to 18-year-old students in their use of school and community restrooms. He can be reached at keating.projectclean@gmail.com and 404/694-2905.

About the Author

Tom Keating, Ph.D., has advocated for improved restrooms for students since 1994. He is coordinator of Project CLEAN and founder of the Center for Sanitation and Citizenship. He can be reached at 404/694-2905 or keating.projectclean@gmail.com. The "Publications" and "Video" links at www.projectclean.us have numerous articles and materials on restroom issues. One article, "We Need to See the Third 'E'" is also about wellness.