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Healthy food and exercise can fuel better learning

Special to The Times

Shelley Curtis & Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles


Unfortunately, many of our children are eating poorly and leading increasingly sedentary lifestyles. As a result, serious and costly health problems, such as obesity and type 2 diabetes in kids, are skyrocketing. With one in six American children reportedly overweight, childhood obesity is approaching epidemic proportions.

Among the many responsibilities of our public schools is teaching children how to lead a healthy lifestyle. And where our students' health is concerned, schools should lead by example. After all, healthier students are better learners.

In 2004, the Legislature enacted a measure requiring school districts to create nutrition and physical-activity policies. This measure also directed state officials to develop a model policy to promote good nutrition and physical activity among our students. Local school boards were then required to adopt their own policies by August 2005.

Many school districts have made significant changes since then. Yet, Washington state is falling behind. In June, the Center for Science in the Public Interest's "School Foods Report Card" graded all 50 states on their policies for foods and beverages sold in schools. Our state received an "F."

Clearly, we need to do more in our public schools and communities to address childhood obesity more effectively.

First, we should address so-called "competitive foods," the food and beverages sold in vending machines, school stores, at fundraisers and a la carte that compete with the federally funded school meal programs. Competitive foods are usually high in calories, fat, sugar and sodium. Setting strong nutrition standards and enforcing those standards would ensure that all students have access to healthy choices during the school day.

The good news is the beverage industry recently reached a national agreement with the William J. Clinton Foundation restricting the kind of beverages sold in schools. Steps should be taken here in Washington to ensure that our state beverage-industry representatives follow the national agreement.

Second, we should increase access to and improve the quality and appeal of school lunch and school breakfast. Increased access means providing additional funding for free school breakfast and lunch programs. This would help ensure that even more low-income students are receiving at least two nutritious meals a day. Improving the quality and appeal would mean setting and enforcing higher standards than those set by the United States Department of Agriculture.

Third, we should strengthen physical-education programs in our public schools. The state's model nutrition and physical-activity policy suggests at least 20 minutes of aerobic activity a day for grades K-8. Yet, efforts to raise state and federal test scores have led some school districts to schedule additional instruction time in reading, writing and math and to reduce time for physical education.

The reasoning behind these districts' strong classroom focus is understandable. But students' physical health and well-being should not be sacrificed to the bottom line of an achievement test.

Fourth, we should consider the example of North Carolina's Coordinated School Health Program to assist local school districts in meeting their wellness goals. This program establishes school health advisory councils in each school district to help administrators plan, implement and monitor their nutrition and physical-activity policies. Additional funds from the state would be required to assist school districts in coordinating these councils.

Lastly, we should explore the state of Arkansas' program that collects body mass index (BMI) measurements of all students in the public schools. When measured and monitored regularly, BMI can be an effective screening tool for obesity.

The program has had its critics. It would be essential to work with stakeholder groups in considering whether to create this program in Washington. Yet, making students' BMI measurements regularly available to parents could allow families to make important changes in their children's eating and physical-activity habits.

When medical experts emphasize the importance of a sound diet and plenty of exercise in improving our own health, schools should not be sanctioning junk food and inadequate levels of activity among students. Instead of perpetuating the problem, public schools can, and should, be a proactive part of the solution.

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle chairs the Senate Labor, Commerce, Research & Development Committee. Shelley Curtis is the nutrition outreach and food-policy manager for the Children's Alliance.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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