Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Overweight Epidemic Requires Community Solutions

By Laurie Iscaro

Our hurried lifestyles lead us toward sedentary recreation. Our children “play” with the computer, I-Pods and Gameboys, and our teens spend many idle hours on MySpace and Facebook. Our schools rarely provide recess or physical education any more, and our kids are rushed through 20-minute lunches in a cafeteria where chicken fingers, pizza and ice cream are more common than a salad bar. Once home, kids who are alone without supervision often opt for sugary or salty treats and TV instead of outdoor play and a nutritious snack.

It’s little wonder we’re having issues with being overweight and obese. Yet schools alone cannot meet the needs of the healthy child for physical, artistic, social and emotional expression.

Obesity presents a staggering health issue today. The level of this epidemic has been unseen in the past and has grown dramatically worse in recent years. Today, one in three Georgia children is obese. According to the CDC, nearly one in four kids does not engage in any type of physical activity during their free time. Middle school students watch three or more hours of television per day on school days and 80 percent of our high school students do not eat the recommended five per day servings of fruits and vegetables.

Georgia has taken an important first step in addressing this crisis with a proposal calling for physical fitness assessments for students. This confidential assessment of data would be reported to the state as an aggregate for each school to shine some light on how our students are faring as a group. A yearly review will allow us to track whether we are making progress in addressing student fitness. The proposal also creates incentives for complying with Georgia’s modest physical education requirements for schools and promotes increased physical activity as a way to increase fitness.

Yet, success will require much more. We must improve the nutrition standards for school breakfast and lunch programs and step-up nutrition education. We need to also fully address vending machine practices and policies in schools and other public places where children are offered food and drink choices that are inconsistent with healthy eating habits.

Also, nonschool hours represent the single largest block of time in the lives of children. It is during this time where we must provide increased opportunities for children to participate in community-based after-school and summer programs that support a range of healthy physical activities. Afterschool programs provide the ideal environment for engaging children in sports and active play. They model and teach healthy behaviors and provide a direct connection to parents. Unfortunately, a recent survey by the Afterschool Alliance found that a large percentage of school age children do not have access to these programs.

It is important that a strategy to challenge obesity reflects the factors that have created the crisis. Today, in most families, both parents work outside the home and for longer hours. When parents get home from a long day at work, they are met with kids needing homework help, a long list of household chores to perform with little time to do them, and the need to prepare, serve and clean-up supper so their growing children can consume healthy, fresh, balanced, non-processed meals. All this for families often isolated from traditional community and family supports.

The 21st Century has presented a unique set of challenges for children, schools and families. The solution cannot rest on the shoulders of parents, or even parents and schools alone. This crisis requires a strategic and comprehensive community effort.

It’s time to recognize the challenges that our families live with today, and provide the needed services to children in school and through quality programs after school. Doing so ensures that harried, hard working families can raise healthy children that thrive.
Iscaro is the executive director for the Georgia School Age Care Association.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the Georgia Forum. 3/08


Unknown said...

There is no double that a critical underpinning of a healthy diet is unquestionably the consumption of fresh vegetables and fruits. Unfortunately, many adults do not like these fine foods - so kids are the concern. Parents and teachers interested in getting kids to develop a friendly attitude towards fruits and vegetables should take a look at a new book called “The ABC’s of Fruits and Vegetables and Beyond.” Out only a few months and already being bought in quantity for class use.Great for kids of all ages as it is two books in one – children first learn their alphabet through produce poems and then go on to more mature activities. Out only six months it is already being used in educational programs. It is coauthored by best-selling food writer David Goldbeck (me) and Jim Henson writer Steve Charney. You can learn more at HealthyHighways.com

Annie said...

Another reason for the obesity epidemic is that too many kids lack a safe place to play within walking distance of where they live. Too many playgrounds have been left unmaintained, or removed due to vandalism, etc.

A great organization called KaBOOM! seeks to address this problem and make sure every kid has a great place to play within walking distance of their home...check them out at www.kaboom.org .