Obesity: Press Release

EHHI Releases Groundbreaking Research Report, The State of Nutrition and Physical Activity in Our Schools

Prompted by rising rates of childhood obesity, Environment and Human Health, Inc. has just completed a yearlong, comprehensive research study that looks at the state of nutrition and physical activity in schools. Environment and Human Health, Inc. (EHHI) is a nine-member, non-profit organization composed of doctors, public health professionals and policy experts.

This groundbreaking study includes information from on-site visits to 62 schools, where the researcher interviewed principals, food service directors, cafeteria staff, physical education and nutrition teachers and students. The schools that were visited represent a cross-section of public schools. Every county in Connecticut is represented, as well as every level of school, including grammar, middle, and high school. Schools were also included from every Economic Reference Group (ERG), which is a classification used by the Board of Education to group together schools with similar socioeconomic status.

The study's findings are so extensive that the report is divided into six chapters, which represent every facet of the school environment having to do with food and physical activity. Every chapter has its own summary of findings and its own set of recommendations that pertain to that chapter's subject matter.

The six chapters of the report cover:

1. How much time children have to eat their lunch. The amount of time varies from school to school and student to student. In some schools the last student in line can have as few as seven minutes;

2. The National School Lunch Program. This is the largest child nutrition program in the country and ninety-five percent of the schools in this study participated in this program;

3. Foods sold by school cafeterias in competition with the National School Lunch Program. These foods are often high in fat, high in added sugar and high in calories;

4. All the other foods available in schools. These include foods sold in bake sales, foods sold for fundraisers, at student-run stores, in school-operated vending machines, and food brought in for birthday parties and other celebrations;

5. Nutrition education in schools. This study found that even the schools with the greatest amount of time devoted to nutrition education were still far below the national recommendations;

6. Physical education and physical activities in schools. Sadly, both opportunities for physical activity and physical education are decreasing despite the fact that physical activity is critical to reducing obesity and overweight prevalence among our school children.

“ This comprehensive report lays out not only what is actually going on in our schools with respect to nutrition and physical activity, but also gives schools, school districts and legislators a roadmap of constructive ways to fix many of the problems found by this original research,” says Nancy Alderman, president of Environment and Human Health, Inc.

Articles in the The American Journal of Public Health and The Journal of the American Medical Association point to school environments as having powerful influences on children’s eating behaviors. In addition, the Surgeon General has identified schools as being “key” settings for preventing and/or decreasing obesity and overweight prevalence among school children. Research has also found that the influence of the school environment on eating behaviors extends beyond the school day and that the foods to which students are exposed in school shape their eating habits outside of school as well.

Eighty percent of the schools in this study offered opportunities for students to eat and drink outside the lunchtime cafeteria. Eighty-one percent of the high schools in this study had school-operated vending machines and one high school had as many as 15 school-run vending machines. “The State should impose nutritional requirements on all food and beverage items sold in school,” says Susan Addiss, past commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Public Health and current director of health education at Environment and Human Health, Inc. “Sales of ‘extra foods’ such as soda and candy should not be permitted at any time during the school day, at any school level.”

EHHI’s research found that food items come into schools from many different sources. Cupcakes and sweets come in for birthday parties, school fundraisers sell candy items and cookies, while cakes and sweet breads arrive at bake sales. There are also classroom parties, school-operated vending machines, and food-based rewards given for either academic achievement or good behavior. Chocolate candy and lollipops are often sold as fund raisers and were available on a relatively regular basis. The study found that these candy items were often consumed by students while they were in school.

“Childhood obesity creates a variety of negative health effects both acute and long-term,” says D. Barry Boyd, M.D., an oncologist at Greenwich Hospital, an affiliate member of Yale’s Cancer Center and a board member of Environment and Human Health, Inc. “Obese and overweight children and adolescents have an increased risk of developing diabetes 2, which one study found to have increased 10-fold from 1982 to 1994. Eighty-five percent of children with Type 2 diabetes are either overweight or obese at diagnosis.”

The study found that physical exercise and physical education were woefully lacking in schools. Elementary and middle school students receive, on average, less than half the time for physical education per week than is nationally recommended. High school students, on average, receive less than one-third the time that is nationally recommended. “Physical education is part of the solution to having healthy children,” says Robert La Camera, M.D., clinical professor of pediatrics at Yale University, and a board member of Environment and Human health, Inc. “Schools should schedule physical education classes at regular intervals throughout the year and these classes should be long enough and structured such that students engage in at least 20 minutes of aerobic activity in every class. Elementary school students should have a daily recess and that students should be encouraged to be active during that time.”

“Marginalizing physical education in schools is sending the wrong message to students about the importance of exercise and its contribution to good health,” explains Cynthia Curl Henderson, the study’s primary researcher. “For more than one-third of the high schools in this study to require just two semesters of physical education over the entire four years of their high school education is simply not adequate. The state presently has absolutely no requirements as to the amount of physical education that must be offered in schools nor how often or consistently it should be scheduled.”

Kelly Brownell, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Psychology at Yale University and author of Food Fight (the newly published book from McGraw-Hill), adds, “The health and well-being of America's children are in peril, due in part to declining physical activity and a disastrous food environment. Schools offer an excellent place to think creativity about how this situation might be reversed.”

“This is exactly what this report aims to do,” says EHHI’s Nancy Alderman.