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Helping Schools Promote Fitness, Healthful Diets


Spurred by a government report warning about the effects of overeating and inactivity among children, education and health officials formed Action for Healthy Kids, a group that works with schools to promote more healthful lifestyles for youngsters. Included: Resources for encouraging eating well, exercising.

Because children spend so much time in schools, schools have become key spots for instilling in a generation of overweight, inactive youngsters the need for good nutrition and exercise. Among those helping schools deliver those messages is Action for Healthy Kids, an advocacy group representing multiple disciplines, united in the mission of improving children's health.

Alicia Moag-Stahlberg

Alicia Moag-Stahlberg, Action for Healthy Kids' executive director, talked with Education World about the group's efforts and the resources it provides to schools.

Education World: What prompted you to start Action for Healthy Kids?

Alicia Moag-Stahlberg: Action for Healthy Kids (AFHK) was created in response to The Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity, released in 2001, which identified the school environment as one of five key sites of change.

Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher is the founding chairman of AFHK, one of the only non-profit organizations specifically addressing the epidemic of overweight, undernourished, and sedentary youth by focusing on changes at school. Action for Healthy Kids is comprised of more than 50 education, health, fitness, and nutrition organizations forming our Partner Steering Committee that provides guidance to the 6,000 volunteers working across the country to make improvements in schools.

We began as a group of leaders in fields such as education, health, government, industry, and volunteer organizations concerned about children's health and the growing obesity epidemic. The Surgeon General's Report gave us the blueprint -- the framework that spelled out what needed to change and how to do it. So starting with funds from the National Dairy Council, we built a national and state network that would take action to improve nutrition and increase physical activity in schools.

The Surgeon General's report called for all sectors of society to take part in preventing [children from becoming] overweight and obese. Action for Healthy Kids has built a public-private partnership that now has more than 50 national organizations and government agencies representing education, health, fitness, and nutrition, which support the efforts of more than 52 AFHK teams (in all states and Washington, D.C.) made up of thousands of volunteers.

EW: Why do you think working with the schools is the best way to address these children's health issues?

Moag-Stahlberg: Addressing the problem of childhood obesity will require a comprehensive, systematic approach involving a wide range of societal institutions and stakeholder groups. These include educators, health care and public health officials, families, and other child-care providers, policy makers, youth organizations, and industry, among others.

Action for Healthy Kids has chosen to focus its efforts in American schools for a number of reasons:

  • Schools are a key site recommended by the Surgeon General's report.
  • School is a structured environment where it is possible to have a powerful influence on children's eating and activity patterns. Youth ages 5-18 spend much of their day on school campuses, where a certain measure of control over what they eat -- and how physically active they are -- can be exerted.
  • School is where children develop many lifelong habits and preferences. Many school-based intervention programs -- such as Know Your Body, Coordinated Approach to Child Health (CATCH), Planet Health, Eat Well, and Keep Moving -- have demonstrated their effectiveness in changing eating and activity patterns.
  • Schools are great equalizers. By providing equality in access to information in settings where families differ in their levels of knowledge and ability to discuss nutritional and physical activity needs, schools help communities fulfill their social responsibilities.
  • Schoolchildren can pass on important lessons to their parents. Witness the success of the environmental movement in influencing adults' attitudes about recycling and conservation through their children.
"For schools to prepare children for a prosperous future, they must lay a solid foundation for healthy behaviors today."
In addition, school-based efforts represent an unduplicated opportunity to promote American children's current and future well being -- both physical and economic -- because experience indicates that healthy behavior and academic achievement are mutually reinforcing. Students who take care of their health tend to perform better academically than students who do not, and students whose academic achievement is above average tend to take better care of their health.

EW: What can schools do to make lunches more healthful and appealing to kids?

Moag-Stahlberg: There are many tools for schools to use; [some of which are listed at] Resources to Improve Schools on the AFHK Web site. There are many ideas and programs on how to offer more healthful school meals. [In one example,] Action for Healthy Kids worked with several Chicago area schools and made some changes, including:

  • Offering healthful products that are attractively packaged and taste good, such as flavored low fat/non-fat milk in plastic "chug" bottles -- kids will choose more of them.
  • Providing breakfast bars, items that can be grabbed when students arrive at school. This helps ensure that kids are ready to learn.
  • Involving students in menu selection. Schools have learned that having student taste-testing panels can help kids select new, more healthful products and entrees.

EW: What do you think is behind the epidemic in overweight children?

Moag-Stahlberg: This is a multi-faceted problem -- many aspects of our lives and of society contribute to the problem -- the root causes stem from poor nutrition and inactive lifestyles. There are many factors that affect a society and then an individual's nutrition and activity levels. Importantly, we must change our environment so individual change can be possible. Schools must encourage students to choose healthful foods and teach nutrition while giving ample time for being active and including physical education as part of the core curriculum.

EW: More schools are eliminating recess because they say they need the time for academics. How do you respond to that concern?

Moag-Stahlberg: Every day students need to have physical education and time for physical activity as in recess. A goal of Action for Healthy Kids is that all schools provide daily, quality physical education for all students from kindergarten to 12th grade. Quality physical education helps develop the knowledge, attitudes, skills, behaviors, and confidence needed for children to be physically active for life. With students spending at least 2,000 hours a year at school, daily physical education provides an important opportunity for students to be active, and it is critical for developing lifelong skills.

Studies have shown that schools offering intense physical activity programs have seen positive effects on academic performance such as improvements in math, reading, and classroom behavior -- even when the added time takes away from academic instruction time. For schools to prepare children for a prosperous future, they must lay a solid foundation for healthy behaviors today.

EW: How do you help schools develop their wellness policies?

Moag-Stahlberg: We have worked with some of our partner organizations to create a Web-based Wellness Policy tool -- it contains resources and tools for each step of the policy process -- from developing language, to promotion and implementation and then evaluation. Our AFHK state teams are providing additional resources and assistance to districts as they develop wellness polices. Action for Healthy Kids will continue to provide technical assistance and resources to help schools in all phases of implementation; monitoring, and evaluating their progress.

This e-interview with Alicia Moag-Stahlberg is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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