Monday, June 13, 2005

We Are All Too Fat

Childhood obesity, we are being told, is a major crisis these days. I was a big problem for me when I was a kid, and it is a big problem for me today. Is anyone doing anything about it? Well, yes. The schools are finally starting to realize that they are a big part of the problem, and are finally taking responsibility for it. How bad is the "crisis" right now?

In the past 30 years, the ranks of overweight children have doubled among kids 2 to 5 and tripled among 6- to 11-year-olds. More than 15 percent of kids 6 to 19 are considered obese -- excessively fat. In Pennsylvania, 18 percent of children are overweight, according to the state Health Department.
Coincidentally, I was kind of a skinny kid until about 30 years ago, when I discovered the refrigerator. I discovered that it was easier -- and tastier -- to eat a lot of food that do outdoor activities like playing sports or just riding my bike. School lunches were usually very bland and tasteless, unless you regard cardboard as flavorful. There was no question of nutrition, however. We had meat, a vegetable, a roll, and a carton of milk. There was also a dessert, which usually contained some form of fruit. If we were lucky, we would get a small block of ice cream. Vanilla ice cream. Not very tasty, that.

My obesity had nothing to do with school lunches. To some extent it was my own fault, but to an even greater extent my parents were at fault. I was not going to the super market and buying loads of junk food for myself. When I got to high school, I found a wider variety of choices at the cafeteria. There was an a la carte line, at which I could purchase a lunch consisting of a Hostess fruit pie, an ice cream sandwich, a Suzy Q, and a carton of chocolate milk. Disgusting! My last two years of high school, I took responsibility for my obesity by working out and cutting back to two meals per day. If only that cafeteria had been run like the elementary school's.

Things are different today. The elementary school in my neighborhood has vending machines just outside of the cafeteria. There are soda pops, candies, and pretzel 'n chip type snacks. The lunch line itself offers choices that I did not have as a young child. And for about fifty cents extra, a kid can treat himself to ice cream. Kids today have a much easier path to obesity than they did when I was a boy, and the schools are just as responsible as the parents. When we send our kids to school, we trust the school to exercise responsibility when dealing with them. In so many areas, the schools -- using our tax dollars -- are failing us. And nutrition is one of those areas.

The stakes in fighting obesity are high. Childhood obesity can lead to heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma. In Pennsylvania, health care costs for covering obesity-related illnesses topped $4 billion last year, health officials said.

"There is no other disease in this society that affects 16 to 17 percent of kids," Dr. Goutham Rao, who treats obese children at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh in Oakland.

It really bugs me when people refer to things like obesity and alcoholism are diseases. That's "mental health" lingo. Obesity is not a disease; it is a cause of diseases. Obesity can be treated, but the treatment is not a cure; it is a preventive. So how are "they" going to treat it?

State officials are increasingly turning to schools -- blamed by some for exacerbating the problem -- for help in fighting fat. The Health Department starting next fall will require schools to measure the body mass index of students from kindergarten through the fourth grade and report the results to parents. The screening will be expanded to all grades within three years.

Pennsylvania will be only the second state in the country to require the schools to measure students' body mass. Arkansas, where 21 percent of all students are considered overweight, was the first, starting in 2003.

Excellent solution. The government is going to "treat" our children's obesity by telling us how fat they are. WE KNOW THAT THEY'RE FAT! WE DO NOT NEED TO KNOW HOW FAT THEY ARE! WE JUST WANT THEM TO STOP BEING SO FAT! Why not just to back to serving bland, tasteless, yet nutritious lunches?

More measures aimed at shrinking waistlines are ahead: A federal law that takes effect in June 2006 will require school districts to establish nutritional guidelines for food on campus. A similar state requirement is pending.

Some schools already have clamped down on junk food and soft drinks:

  • Quaker Valley bans carbonated beverages in favor of water, juices and iced tea in its vending machines.

  • North Allegheny forbids soft drinks in cafeterias.

  • Pine-Richland and Bethel Park only allow vending machines to be turned on after school hours.

  • Riverview doesn't allow students to buy snack foods until they've eaten all the nutritious foods on their trays.

  • Pittsburgh Public Schools is weighing a ban on junk foods and soft drinks.

  • Typical. When the state and local authorities don't do their jobs, the feds get involved. At least some districts are doing something about it. Much of it is half-arsed, but at least it is a start.
    Similar measures are being considered or have been enacted already around the country at the state level. Arizona and California, for example, ban soft drinks in elementary and junior high schools, and Connecticut is considering a ban.
    Ah yes, California. I call this "the Arnold effect". By the time he's out of office, those Cali kids will not only be eating the healthiest school meals in the country, but they will be in a strict exercise regimen designed to reduce their total body fat to 4% of their total body mass.

    Health officials say the tougher stance on junk is welcome, but still doesn't go far enough. Many schools offer kids a choice between celery sticks or other nutritional foods and treats such as cookies or tasty, but fattening, snacks such as onion rings. That, health officials say, is a bad idea.

    "I can't understand for the life of me why we're giving our kids so much choice. Where is the value of that?" said Joan Procopio, a dietitian with the Allegheny County Health Department.

    Yes! Thank you! Now if only the schools would listen to her, instead of people like this other "nutritionist":

    Some school food service directors, however, say eliminating choice in menus is unrealistic.

    "Parents don't do that at home. We have to mirror child likes and dislikes," said Maryann Lazzaro, a dietitian and director of Food services for the Plum Borough School District.

    Why do those choices have to include pop and snacks? Who lobbied for the inclusion of junk foods in school lunch choices in the first place. I exercised some degree of choice when I was a kid. I was really not a big milk drinker, and I often threw away the carton of milk unopened. Sometimes I left another food item on the tray. Not good, I admit, but I believe that unconsumed milk and tossed green beans are a better choice than trying to decide whether you want to wash your Ho-Hos down with Coke or Root Beer.

    Some schools nonetheless have taken steps to rid cafeterias of goodies.

    Penn Hills food services director Patty Panuccio replaced the high school cafeteria snack bar -- which sold ice cream and M & Ms -- with a salad bar. Candy once sold at the cafeteria is gone. Chips are still available, but they're baked, not fried. Vegetables are flavored with a spice mix, not butter.

    Even the grilled cheese sandwiches are healthier. "We used to dip the bread in butter, now we spray them with (oil) that has no fat in it," Panuccio said.

    Panuccio said her aim is moderate change, not a revolution.

    "You're not going to get kids to eat all tofu and soy milk right away," Panuccio said. "It's all about moderation. It's the whole thing about life. You just (shouldn't) eat pizza every day."

    The salad bar is a good idea, as long as it is not self-serve. As a former child, I would worry about things like kids blowing boogers into the salad bar. This school sounds like it is headed in the right direction, though I would have to draw the line somewhere before tofu and soy milk.

    Enough talk about the educational institutions. What role do the parents play in all of this?

    But information about kids' body mass index is more than some parents want to know from schools.

    Beverly Manz, 36, of North Versailles, said that if her son Aaron, 11, weren't the picture of health, she wouldn't want to hear about it from a school nurse.

    "The school is there to teach them, not judge them," she said. "He's my kid, not theirs. It's my responsibility what he looks like."

    Body mass index is not an exact measurement of obesity -- athletes or kids with more muscle than average, for example, could appear overweight -- but public health experts say it's a good way to raise awareness.

    North Hills parents were riled in 2002 when school nurses measured junior high students' body mass and sent notes home with kids found to be overweight.

    Schools will send notes home with all students, rather than just overweight kids, state officials said.

    If only more parents were like the lady quoted here, they wouldn't get letters that say, "Dear Parent: Your kid is too big and fat. Obviously you do not realize this, so we need to tell you about it. Love, The School Nurse". They can hang the letter on the refrigerator next to the one from the teacher that says the kid is too stupid, and the one from the self-esteem counselor that says the kid is too ugly. That's why we send our children to school. So the school officials can tell them what's wrong with them before the playground bullies do.

    Michelle Justus, program director for the Arkansas initiative, said there was some resistance when schools there began gauging students' body mass in 2003.

    "A lot of parents said 'This isn't the school's place. This is unnecessary. I take my child to the doctor.' But there are a lot of parents that don't take their child to the doctor," Justus said.

    We're on the road to one-stop shopping here. The school will be the primary provider of all your child's daily and long-term needs. Education, nutrition, health care, and everything else. Why not just turn all public schools into boarding schools and be done with it? We might even get to see the kids on weekends.

    This is why parents need to take greater responsibility for their children's nutrition. If you don't, you are allowing the government to take a greater role in their upbringing. When I went shopping last night, I skipped the ice cream aisle and concentrated on things like fruits, meats and salad. It's better for me, it's better for my wife, and it's better for my kids. My two year old daughter has just enough baby fat in her face to give her that adorable cherubic look, but the rest of her is in that nice "not too thin, not too fat" range. When she raided the refrigerator last night and walked over to me in the living room, what do you think she was munching on?

    A nice crunchy lettuce leaf. And she washed it down with a small cup of milk. I must be doing something right, and I hope the schools will not do anything to ruin it for her.

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