Put obesity problem on school table

I applaud First Mama Michelle Obama for launching “Let’s Move,” a program that seeks to reverse, within the modest span of a generation, the alarming rise in childhood obesity. A 2007 report from Georgia’s Division of Public Health stated that obesity-related illnesses cost our state $2.1 billion each year, and that 24 percent of third-graders are already obese.

So, since big problems often require a series of small solutions, I thought we Fayetteers ought to consider what more we might do about this (literally) growing problem. The causes aren’t hard to find, but when it comes to changing personal habits, the remedy will have to be swallowed without the proverbial spoonful of sugar.

Food and exercise — too much of the former and too little of the latter — are major factors of childhood obesity.

If, as the Fayette County School Nutrition motto says, we want our kids to “Eat Smart and Be Smart,” schools need to be a major influence. But what kids learn in the classroom isn’t always practiced in the cafeteria. The Georgia School Food Service Association’s resolution on childhood obesity acknowledges that “simply increasing knowledge in the area of nutrition ... does not necessarily translate into action.”

Based on what I’ve observed since my kids were in kindergarten, here’s what might help:

● Stop routinely rewarding elementary students with candy; get the jars out of the classrooms. The intentions may be benign, but the cumulative effects are not. Limit candy to holidays and class parties and use other incentives instead.

● Improve school lunch menus. Having a salad bar doesn’t help if kids (being kids) bypass it in favor of hamburgers, fries and nachos. If kids tend to choose the least healthy foods most often, then maybe the choices have some changing left to do.

● Get fast food out of the schools. I don’t know when Chick-fil-A became the unofficial caterer for Fayette County, but it’s at nearly every event, party and field trip, and sells directly in high school cafeterias.

Using the meal calculator on the Chick-fil-A Web site, I tallied the contents of a typical kid’s meal: six chicken nuggets with honey BBQ sauce, small fries and a small Coke. That works out to 670 calories total, 30 grams of fat (6 saturated), 960 milligrams of sodium and 38 grams of sugar.

As a rule, schools should set a better example with the foods they serve or make available.

Then there’s exercise. Middle and high schoolers no longer have daily gym classes, although running clubs and school sports are good alternatives if used. This is where parents need to get on the ball (preferably by kicking, throwing or shooting one). If your child’s thumbs get more exercise than her legs, there’s a problem. Limit computer, TV and cellphone time and — gasp! — make them walk or just go outside more often. They’ll find things to do; kids always have.

I’m a busy parent, and I know how tempting convenience is both during and after school. But what’s easiest or cheapest in the short term isn’t necessarily what’s best in the long term, and what’s at stake is our children’s health and our country’s future.

Jill Howard Church, a freelance writer, lives in Fayette County.

By Jill Howard Church

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