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Media Contacts

Terry Spradlin
Center for Evaluation and Education Policy
tspradli@indiana.edu
812-856-4781

Tracy James
IU Media Relations
traljame@indiana.edu
812-855-0084

Last modified: Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Schools can play big role in fighting childhood obesity

Indiana University report calls for more exercise, healthier fare in school vending machines

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- School children and adolescents should be eating more -- more healthy breakfasts -- and visiting school vending machines less, according to a new report from Indiana University Bloomington's Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

School officials need to resist the temptation to cut physical education classes and recess in an effort to boost test scores, because the move could backfire, according to the policy brief, "Child Obesity in Indiana: A Growing Public Policy Concern."

"There really is a growing awareness -- and perhaps the underpinnings of a revolution -- that we no longer can continue with the unhealthy lifestyles we enjoy today," said Terry Spradlin, CEEP's associate director for education policy.

For children and adolescents, obesity can contribute to serious health problems, impede academic achievement, increase chances of being bullied, and lead to lives as overweight or obese adults. This epidemic has extensive personal health consequences and significant financial implications.

Schools have a responsibility to help students live healthier lives -- to encourage them to become more active and to eat better -- because of the amount of time students spend at school, according to the policy brief. Yet, school officials face formidable challenges:

  • Vending machines and snack bars stocked with foods of minimal nutritional value that compete with the existing USDA-regulated lunch program and are promoted through attractive financial offers from outside sources;
  • Lack of resources for quality physical education programs;
  • Demand for higher student academic achievement in core subjects.

While obese and overweight children are a nationwide concern -- with rates of children and adolescents in such condition skyrocketing since the 1980s -- the problem is particularly acute in Indiana, which just a few years ago ranked third in the nation for incidence of childhood obesity, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC also reported that Indiana students were significantly below the national average in daily participation in physical education.

"Policymakers and education leaders in Indiana are tackling the issue," Spradlin said, "but through a patchwork approach of disjointed program initiatives."

The state needs better communication and coordination between its health and education sectors to implement a more unified and consistent approach to the problem, Spradlin said. State legislation is one alternative, he said, but not the only solution. Still, legislators find themselves dealing with the issue one way or another.

"Another key factor is Medicaid expenditures for the state. It's escalating out of control," Spradlin said. "Legislators are having an extremely difficult time containing Medicaid expenditures. A primary factor in the spiraling costs is obesity. Preventive measures are necessary. If we can educate children about wellness, fitness and nutrition, helping them make wise choices about what they eat and how they exercise, and if those can become lifelong habits, we'll go a long way in reducing the epidemic of obesity and the associated costs."

The policy brief examines several national and state initiatives to combat childhood and adolescent obesity and offers recommendations for change. To see the full report, visit http://ceep.indiana.edu/projects/PDF/PolicyBrief_Childhood_Obesity.pdf. Here are some of the recommendations:

  • School administrators should resist pressures that would lead to reductions in recess time and physical education instruction. Physical activity promotes improved fitness and wellness of students, which in turn can contribute to higher academic achievement.
  • Education leaders should be encouraged to examine the academic standards for health and nutrition classes to determine if the schools' food policies are in line with what they teach.
  • Educators should examine the possibility of negotiating school vending machine contracts to ensure that the machines include healthy alternatives.
  • Educators should monitor school vending machine use to ensure that the machines are not in operation during lunch and other prohibited times.
  • Education leaders should encourage participation by eligible students in the National School Breakfast Program. Eating a balanced breakfast contributes to enhanced academic performance and improved student behavior. Yet a large number of eligible students still do not participate in this national program. Skipping breakfast is associated with a higher risk of obesity, because it encourages overeating later in the day.

CEEP promotes and supports rigorous program evaluation and policy research primarily, but not exclusively, for education, human services and non-profit organizations. Its research uses both quantitative and qualitative methodologies. To learn more about CEEP, go to http://ceep.indiana.edu.

Spradlin can be reached at 812-856-4781 and tspradli@indiana.edu.