WASHINGTON – In the fight to curb the collective appetite that drives childhood obesity, Nomvuyo Qubeka is incredulous that there is a disconnect between what’s served in school cafeterias and national goal of curbing the epidemic.
“Is anybody looking at what the children eat in cafeterias? The partnership with cafeterias, is it happening?” asked Qubeka, who works in school health services in Montgomery County, Md. “The hardest thing is when you are in these schools and you really see nothing changed in their diets. Yes people are talking, but it really hasn’t trickled down to the school cafeterias.”
At last week’s annual National Minority Quality Forum in Washington, she asked: “What is the nutritional value and logic of serving pink strawberry milk laced with high fructose corn syrup and bleached-white pancakes?”
Some health officials are unhappy with what’s being served in the school cafeterias and the vending machines.
“There are a lot of grassroots movements around the country to get vending machines out of schools, or at least change what’s offered in them,” said Cynthia Ogden, a researcher for the federal Centers for Disease Control. “But there’s still work to be done.”
And some of that work is being taken on by First Lady Michelle Obama.
Millions have seen the first lady – with her well-toned arms – doing the Dougie to the theme song of her “Let’s Move” movement, hastening women of all ages to set up appointments with personal trainers. A fire has been lit under the United States’ collective conscious to burn millions of calories. The ultimate goal? Melt down the 16.9 percent obesity rate in children and adolescents.
Dr. Kenneth Moritsugu, chairman of the Johnson & Johnson Diabetes Institute, highlighted data that shows Black children rank among the heaviest.
According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, approximately 17 percent, or 12.5 million children and adolescents aged 2 to 19 years old are obese. The obesity prevalence among them has almost tripled since 1980.
Obesity in non-Hispanic Black boys nearly doubled from 10.7 percent to 19.8 percent in the period of 1988-1994 to 2007-2008. They edged out non-Hispanic White boys, who expanded from 11.6 percent to 16.7 percent over that same period. Mexican-American boys saw their rate rise from 14.1 percent to 26.8 percent in the period studied.
The sharpest jump in obesity was among non-Hispanic Black girls. Their rates ballooned from 16.3 percent to 29.2 percent. Mexican-American girls rose slightly from 13.4 percent to 17.4 percent. Non-Hispanic White girls increased from 8.9 percent to 14.5 percent.
To reverse these trends, Dr. Moritsugu detailed his institute’s plan to get children active in schools. Launched in January, it targets four cities – Atlanta, Houston, Newark and Philadelphia – and has already seen progress in the first eight weeks.
“We’ve seen 100,000 hours of exercise logged, which translates into more than 20 million calories burned,” he said. “In a February survey, teachers have noticed significant improvements in academic performance. [Children] pay more attention to instruction after each session, they behave better in the classroom and are more attentive. These are all halo effects.”
Experts said in order to be successful, they must get an increasing number of students to trade in their video time for exercise.
But a major problem to getting children out of the home has been their parents.
“How do you engage the parents, because that’s been one of our struggles with the children in our after school programs,” said Daphne Pajeaud Ferdinand, president and executive director of the New Orleans-based Healthy Heart Community Prevention Project.
Some have not given up on more parental involvement.
“Children are often our change agents,” said Dr. Moritsugu of the Johnson & Johnson Diabetes Institute. “Our approach is to start with the children, penetrate the homes, and move to the communities. Our strategy is to try to have a bottom up approach, while other areas are trying to engage in top down.”
Whether one starts at the top or the bottom, everyone agrees that the sooner people are engaged, the better the chance for success.
“If we can prevent obesity in children, then hopefully the prevalence in adults won’t be so high,” Ogden explained. “All the data suggests that if you start off active you will be active your whole life.”
But it’s difficult to get off to a healthy start without a commitment from school administrators.
“Those of us who have been involved with schools on the local level, we all know that school districts are very protective of control over their schools,” said Moritsugu, the father of a 9-year-old daughter. “Each of us has to engage on the local level, because that’s where you’ll have the most impact.”
By Akeya Dickson
NNPA Washington Correspondent