“I tell the kids that they have to have breakfast because when they’re sleeping, their metabolism shuts down and won’t kick in until they eat something,” said Sue Childers, a physical education teacher and health proponent. “A lot of my girls say they want to lose weight. I tell them if they’re skipping breakfast, they’re wasting time that they could have been burning calories.”
The health project is one of many across West Virginia that embraces the efforts of the state Board of Education to improve the health and wellness of West Virginia’s youth. The board in April issued a position statement, placing a priority on good health and reducing childhood obesity in West Virginia.
The board also recommended guidelines for counties to use in developing their own wellness policies. The guidelines address nutrition, physical activity and health education. All school districts that receive federal funds for their meal programs must adopt local wellness policies that address nutrition and physical fitness by this fall. Such policies also must include nutrition information for all foods available at school each day.
“County boards of education can make a positive impact on promoting healthy lifestyles among students and staff through proactive local wellness policies,” the board said. “Educators should be advocates for promoting healthy lifestyle choices that are proven to have a positive influence on student achievement and preparation for becoming a productive citizen of the 21st century.” Children who eat breakfast and lunch at school consume twice as many servings of fruits, vegetables and milk than those who don’t participate in school programs. They also drink one-forth the number of soft drinks and skip fewer meals.
That’s especially important in a state like West Virginia, where one in three children born today will likely develop diabetes by the time they grow up. The state is consistently among the top three states for obesity with about a third of its residents considered obese and more considered overweight, according to the state Bureau of Public Health.
Extra weight can lead to arthritis, some cancers, diabetes, high blood pressure and other health problems.
“It’s important for students and parents to understand how serious the lifelong complications of obesity can be,” said Sheila Hamilton, chairwoman of the West Virginia Board of Education’s Wellness Committee. “We’re looking out not only for the health and wellness of students but their future employment potential. In today’s global world, employers want healthy employees to control costs and they can go elsewhere to get them. Being obese can hinder students in getting the job they want.” Schools are critical to addressing childhood obesity because much of the food students eat each day as well as their physical activity happens at school.
“The state board wants to encourage schools to go as far as they can to get kids to eat healthy and exercise,” said board member Barbara Fish. “We absolutely have to push them to go for the maximum not the minimum requirements. Schools can really make a key difference in student health and wellness.”
The West Virginia Board of Education is in the forefront in promoting student health across the country. The state had already adopted a policy that restricted vending machine access in schools even before major soft drink makers recently agreed to offer healthier beverage choices in schools nationwide by 2009.
In a deal with the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation, soda manufacturers agreed to offer only healthy or low-calorie and pull non-diet sodas from school vending machines accessible to 35 million children across the United States.
By adopting such policies, the state school board hopes to increase the likelihood that students will consume healthy foods and up their physical activity each day.
Washington Lands Elementary in Marshall County has agreed to become a model school this fall by adopting a comprehensive program that incorporates health and wellness in every subject, said Debbie Schrader, the county’s child nutrition director. Plays and musical programs will have health and wellness themes, essay contests will promote exercise and nutrition, while math classes will use fruits and vegetables to teach counting.
“We’re calling it Wildcat Wellness after the school’s mascot,” Schrader said. ‘Bulletin boards in every classroom will have something about wellness or physical fitness.”
The county also is focusing on classroom parties. They’ve banned homemade goods in an effort to control junk food brought to school. Instead, school officials encourage parents to send granola bars and other healthy snacks. They also have eliminated vending machines from their elementary schools and donuts from staff meetings.
“We have a long way to go but we’re trying to take baby steps,” Schrader said. “We’re trying to act as role models. Today’s children are the first generation that is not expected to outlive their parents because of the prevalence of heart disease and diabetes. School systems have to take responsibility for the health and wellness of our children.”
At East Dale Elementary in Fairmont, third-graders are issued pedometers as part of a Blue Cross/Blue Shield Challenge for Healthy Schools grant. The program, which started last year, will track student progress for three years, said Mary Weikle, the school’s health and physical education teacher. Already, the program is having a positive affect on student health and wellness, she said.
“The children’s awareness has really increased,” Weikle said. “They know that it takes 13,000 steps for boys and 11,000 steps for girls every day to be healthy. Adults need 10,000 but children need more and they now know it.”
At home, students record how many steps they take each day or how much time they spend on an activity and parents are asked to sign off on it. In school, students use the pedometers in class to determine which activities are more vigorous than others.
“Pedometers are a super motivator,” Weikle said.
East Dale also started a recess before lunch program where fifth- and sixth- graders walk for 10 minutes every day on a measure track around the school before going to lunch.
“They were ecstatic to go outside,” Weikle said. “We forget children are sitting nearly all day. This makes them more alert and we know healthy children learn better. It’s the little steps that will be valuable in making a permanent lifestyle change.”
Health educators like Childers, Schrader and Weikle say the emphasis the West Virginia Board of Education has placed on health and wellness makes their efforts easier.
“The board has sent a strong, clear message to the county boards of education that we have support from the state level,” Schrader said. “It really gives us a vision and direction to go in.”
Fish said the board wants that message to be one of consistency to students and staff statewide.
“Whatever we are teaching in the classroom, in the school environment, has to be consistent,” she said. “We want them to understand that it’s not OK to eat good food at lunch only to make poor food choices later. Good nutrition doesn’t stop when the bell rings.”