A Frightening Trend

C hildhood obesity is one of the most pressing health issues affecting our nation’s students. Did you know that about one-third of U.S. adults (33.8 percent) are obese; or that approximately 17 percent (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged two through 19 are obese? According to a recent CDC report, since 1980, obesity prevalence among children and adolescents has almost tripled. In 2010, no state had an obesity rate of less than 20 percent.

Schools play a key role in our efforts to reverse this epidemic by promoting physical activity, educating students on healthy eating and teaching them behaviors that will keep them healthier throughout their life. Unfortunately — many schools are getting a failing grade.

A recent audit report was conducted by the New York City Comptroller on the Department of Education’s (DOE) Compliance with the Physical Education (PE) Regulations in Elementary Schools. The results were grim. "The DOE has failed to give students the legally required amount of physical education and failed to follow its own recommendations for fighting high rates of childhood obesity," Comptroller John C. Liu says, and then states, "The DOE is failing gym." None of the 31 elementary schools visited by officials were in full compliance with state guidelines on physical education. Plus, the DOE had not updated its PE plan in 30 years.

Also coming under fire are school lunch programs — many relying heavily on high-energy, low-nutrient-value food because it’s cheaper.

Fortunately, it seems that positive changes are in the works. Under a law that regulates schools participating in the federal school lunch program, signed on Dec. 13, 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture now can impose nutritional standards on all snacks and refreshments sold in schools. A healthier fare is being brought to school vending machines. When it comes to cafeteria food, Cornell researchers report that tiny tweaks to cafeteria layouts can make remarkable differences in what kids opt to eat. So-called "smart cafeterias" would feature low- or no-cost changes in design, food presentation and layout, in an effort to tap "the natural psychology of choice" as youths consider their mealtime options.

Why put the onus on schools? There is no other organization that can touch the lives of so many of our young people. PLUS... healthy students learn better.