Young and Overweight: Nebraska’s obesity problem
June 20th, 2012
Lincoln, NE – Youth obesity has been called an epidemic. Seventeen percent of American youth are overweight, and the percentage may be even a little higher in Nebraska. In part one of the series, â€œYoung and Overweight: Fighting Obesity in Nebraskaâ€, NET News producer Mike Tobias reports on the scope and causes of youth obesity.
Twice a week during the school year at Western Hills Elementary School in Omaha, kitchen workers fill paper plates with piles of a raw fruit or vegetable. Then student workers don special t-shirts that say
â€œAsk Me About My Job at Western Hillsâ€ and deliver the plates of food to each classroom. Sometime during the day students sample and evaluate the fruit. Western Hills participates in the USDAâ€™s Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program, an effort to help kids learn healthy eating habits and one of many ways Western Hills is targeting youth obesity.
â€œI feel itâ€™s our job as well to educate these children about the importance of health and wellness,â€ said Margie Reed-Schmid, the principal at Western Hills.
Reed-Schmid calls youth obesity an epidemic and a problem sheâ€™s seen increase in her 23 years as an educator.
â€œI think youâ€™re seeing a lot more children who are obese,â€ Reed-Schmid said. â€œItâ€™s a lot more common. Iâ€™m seeing a lot more children who are lethargic, who just donâ€™t want to go to PE, who donâ€™t want to play outside.â€
As a result, Reed-Schmid has been making some changes at Western Hills.
â€œWhen I first came here if the kids stayed off the clipboard, if they had a good week they could come in the office and get a piece of candy,â€ Reed-Schmid said. â€œI got rid of that right away, got rid of the pop machines right away, got rid of having food parties.â€
But thatâ€™s not all. Students take â€œbrain breaks,â€ a way to incorporate physical activity like dancing and yoga into the school day. Western Hills has started field trips that include hiking and offers wellness based elective classes like yoga and volleyball. Some classes start recess with a lap on the schoolâ€™s walking track, and recess is scheduled before lunch to maximize activity. Signs and posters advocating healthy eating line every hallway. Reed-Schmid says they work hard to make healthy lifestyle activities and education a regular part of the school day.
â€œWe have such a tight day and our teachers really are teaching bell to bell with all of the state standards,â€ Reed-Schmid said. â€œSo we try to kind of incorporate it into everything we do. It naturally fits into the research piece and into the writing piece.â€
Much of the task of reducing youth obesity has fallen on schools.
â€œThe reason the schools are such a good place to do things is thatâ€™s where the kids are,â€ said Dr. Bob Rauner, chair of the public health committee of the Nebraska Medical Association. â€œIf youâ€™re going to educate children, where better to educate them than in the schools where they all happen to be. They spend half of their waking hours during the school day in that school environment, so you can reach large numbers.â€
â€œMost of the studies out there that are successful are school-based efforts,â€ Rauner added. â€œSo the reason we focus on the schools is just because thatâ€™s the most efficient means of doing this and thatâ€™s where the evidence leads us to put our efforts first.â€
Dr. Jennifer Huberty is an associate professor of health, physical education and recreation at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Huberty works with schools and trains teachers to help them get the most out of what she says is limited time for physical activity.
â€œAt schools, there needs to be a policy that staff are trained with skills related to physical activity,â€ Huberty said. â€œThere needs to be a policy that says all kids are required to get an hour of physical activity just like theyâ€™re required not to chew gum.â€
Western Hills Elementary principal Margie Reed-Schmid knows it will take a lot of work to reverse the youth obesity trend. Especially at her school, where a majority of the students come from low socioeconomic situations where youth obesity is more common. But she sees little victories coming from efforts like the Fresh Fruits and Vegetables program.
â€œParents are telling me now that when they go to the grocery stores with their children, theyâ€™re asking them for blackberries over candy, which Iâ€™m thrilled about because thatâ€™s part of what the program is intended to do is educate them on whatâ€™s available,â€ Reed-Schmid said. â€œI think little by little itâ€™s spreading.â€
Editorial note: This story is part of the NET News â€œYoung and Overweight: Fighting Obesity in Nebraskaâ€ project. Go to netNebraska.org/youthobesity for more stories and information. A special television program, â€œYoung and Overweight: Fighting Obesity in Nebraska,â€ airs Friday, June 22 at 7 p.m. CT on NET1 and NET-HD, and is also streamed on the project web site.
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