Revisiting Healthy Schools

A few months ago, I wrote a post titled, “Thoughts on Childhood Obesity and Poverty”. In this piece I pointed out that obesity is commonly perceived as either an  individual problem or the by-product of America’s fast-food junkie, television zombie culture. I argued that individual habits and regional cultures are not sufficient to explain the rising rates of obesity in America—corporate food giants (who enlarge portions of snacks and sodas to jack up prices), resource inequalities, unhealthy school lunches and a variety of other structural factors all contribute to the prevalence of childhood obesity and type II diabetes, especially in inner city communities.

So how can we reverse the obesity epidemic in low income communities?

In my experience, many interventions focus on educating students on the virtues of eating healthy. When I worked as a social work intern at Rogers Park High School, the school health clinic invited a food critic to visit the classrooms and conduct an apple tasting with the kids. We helped her haul buckets of organic apples into the classrooms so that the kids could learn to identify the subtle differences between pink ladys, macintoshs, and fuji apples. “Isn’t it wonderful? The kids are actually excited about eating apples! They’re exciting about eating healthy!” my supervisor gushed. Frankly, I felt conflicted about the whole idea. Most of our kids came from poor families–they couldn’t afford to buy organic apples and even if they could there were no groceries stores in their neighborhoods. They didn’t even serve fresh fruit in the cafeteria. What good was teaching kids about eating healthy when they didn’t have any access to healthy food?

After this experience I felt convinced  that we must increase the access that poor kids and their parents have to healthy foods in order to combat childhood obesity. In my earlier post I proposed that governments offer subsidies to help poor families buy produce, that schools make healthy lunches a priority, and that cities offer incentives for grocery stores to move into poor neighborhoods.

Recently, I’ve begun to realize that these structural solutions are also not sufficient to curb unhealthy eating habits among children. In one of my courses last semester, we attempted to devise school based programs that might prevent the development of type II diabetes among urban kids. During this discussion I realized that I had overlooked a few important facts.

Foremost, I forgot the obvious fact that kids–all kids, everywhere, like to eat junk food. Simply put, kids are less likely than adults to worry about what they eat. Furthermore, many kids (especially adolescents) may exercise control or independence from their parents by making choices about what they eat. (I.e. the more your mother yelled at you to eat your vegetables the less likely you were to eat them, right?). A recent New York Times article described parents in Philadelphia who stood outside corner stores to discourage kids from stopping in and buying candy or chips on their way to and from school. Guess what the kids did? Most of them barged right past those parents and bought candy anyway. They were acting out their role as adolescents–asserting their ability to make their own choices.

We can educate kids and provide them to access with healthy foods, but ultimately we can’t control what kids eat. This is especially true for urban children who may spend more time unsupervised than micro-managed suburban children. My professor pointed out that school-based health programs need to create a shift in kid’s attitudes. This means that we need to create school cultures were kids are committed to making healthy decisions.

How does that happen? Our class came up with a few ideas I thought were valuable. First, kids need “possible selves”. This means they need to see people who come from their communities, people who look and talk like them modeling healthy habits. For example, a white, middle-aged food critic is less likely to influence the way kids eat than a speaker from their own community. When white teachers or school leaders do educate students of color about healthy eating, they should incorporate Black or Latino role models into the discussion (the Obamas are great examples) so that students do not equate healthy eating with “acting white”.Kids also need to have a sense of ownership, mastery and choice. For example, educators can frame obesity or type II diabetes as a social justice issue and encourage kids to be activists and spread awareness of the issue within their communities. Or schools might provide an array of physical activities (from traditional sports to activities like dance, karate or yoga), so that kids who don’t identify as “athletes” can find a way to demonstrate mastery in an activity that includes some aspect of exercise.

I think the bottom line is that programs need to recognize that personal, cultural, and environmental factors all contribute to poor health outcomes in low-income neighborhoods. Furthermore, we can’t overlook the fact that kids themselves can be powerful agents of change. In order to be successful, we need their insights, participation, and buy-in.

    • Catie
    • April 4th, 2011

    You make a lot of good points. Kids are definitely making their own decisions at school – you don’t need to look any further than my brother who used to trade the vegetables in his packed lunch for Twinkies (I don’t know who the kid on the other end of that trade was…). However, I think the most important role models for these kids are their parents. Regardless if they’re going to rebel, if they grow up learning healthy eating habits, that’s what they’ll remember when they’re no longer rebelling and making decisions for themselves. Their parents also have the ability to provide healthy food for when they’re not at school, provided that there’s access to this kind of food, which is what you were talking about in your earlier post. Of course it would be valuable to teach kids about making healthy choices and about why this is important, both in terms of the health consequences as well as the social implications, but they are still kids who theoretically should have adults who are helping them make these good decisions when they might not be thinking about their own best interests.

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