Canadian children are suffering from a near epidemic of inactivity that is now reflected in rising obesity rates. Physical inactivity, online adolescence, and poor eating habits have now also been linked to weaker academic performance. A ground breaking series, Fit to Learn, in The Globe and Mail (May 23-29, 2012) put the issue of children’s health squarely on the public agenda. The dire state of Physical Education programs, alarming rates of child obesity, the ineffectiveness of Healthy Schools policies, and report card BMI fitness grades were all aired out in the series. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/education/war-on-child-obesity-out-of-the-cafeteria-and-onto-the-playground/article4209692/
What came out of the series of in-depth reports? An Editorial entitled “Obesity obsession,‘ (29 May 2012) that offered a sobering message to Healthy Schools crusaders in Canada’s provincial education systems. After noting that the schools had “enough on their plates,” the Editors claimed that “the emphasis on the school’s role is overdone.” Many schools were already doing a great deal, but “the role of the schools is not to perfect children.” In short, what the schools teach has to be reinforced at home.
A local battle over a Cake Walk fundraiser, sparked by Halifax-area mother Pamela Lovelace, erupted in early June when the Education Department issued a new set of guidelines which prohibited a traditional Maritime tradition of parent association “cake walks” in which calorie-laden cakes are raffled-off to raise money. Her little protest generated quite a groundswell of support, all focused on resistance to Nova Scotia’s school nutrition policy. Eventually, Minister of Education Ramona Jennex was forced to backtrack in an attempt to calm the waters. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/parenting/the-fight-to-keep-cake-in-the-classroom/article4240139/
With the controversy still swirling, Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter ( June 7, 2012) announced Thrive! , a glitzy $2 million Healthy Living initiative, focusing on combating child obesity, introducing compulsory PE classes, more nutrition programs, and a war on junk food. http://thechronicleherald.mobi/novascotia/104665-ns-to-spend-2-million-to-fight-childhood-obesity That initiative came on the heals of an earlier Ontario initiative in September 2011 which clamped down on unhealthy foods and beverages, while allowing up to 10 school days where students can hold pizza sales and even chocolate bar drives.
Fighting child obesity is a worthy cause, but most of the school-based initiatives are merely more of the same, albeit better funded and more targeted than the first wave of Healthy Schools policy activity some five or six years ago. If there is a glimmer of hope for this to work, it will take a larger project aimed at building healthier communities rather than another well-intended effort seeking to impose a new layer of provincial regulation, from cradle to grave.
Nova Scotia’s Thrive! initiative is one of the first to recognize that only a province-wide health and wellness project will make any dent in the problem. It was announced by the Premier, along with Health Nova Scotia and four provincial departments, in a show of force. It was mounted using an innovative strategy known as “collective impact” recognizing that no government initiative stands any chance of succeeding unless it is inter-departmental and forges new alliances. http://www.ssireview.org/pdf/2011_WI_Feature_Kania.pdf
The Nova Scotia Healthy Living project is unique in another respect — it is beginning to connect the dots. No provincial initiative to combat child obesity will work unless it addresses the underlying structural problems, including the brute logic of school consolidation and the siting of schools farther and farther away from children and neighbourhood communities.
Designing and building communities for active healthy living will require a seismic shift in school planning and the siting of schools. Ten years ago, Noreen C. MacDonald’s study of Active Transportation to School for U.S. students (1969-2001) reported that the number of students walking to school had declined from 40.7% to 12.9 %. http://dot.ga.gov/localgovernment/FundingPrograms/srts/Documents/news/Trends_Among_US_School_Children.pdf
School siting by education facilities planners has been identified as a major contributing factor. A ground breaking U.S. EPA study in October 2003, Travel and Environmental Implications of School Siting, identified planning of schools and growing walking distances as a critical strategic issue, with educational, environmental and health implications, as well as financial ones, for the future of communities. Since 1945, the EPA reported that the number of American public schools had declined by 70 per cent while average school size grew fivefold, from 127 to 653. “School proximity matters,” the report claimed, and bigger schools meant fwer kids walking and longer bus rides, all with serious impacts on air emissions and physical health. It strongly recommended that travel time to school be elevated to a higher level in state and district school planning.
Today’s child obesity epidemic is shining new light on the way communities are designed and the importance of promoting “active living among children.” Since the advent of the Internet and video games, kids spend, in the words of Nova Scotia’s CMOH, Dr. Robert Strang, “too much time sitting” before, during, and after school hours. “A walkable neighbourhood” is fast becoming the most desirable community for children as well as adults because it encourages everyone to “walk or bike” from home to school to workplace. Oddly enough, it may take a looming health crisis to restore small community schools to their rightful place in public education and to end those long bus rides to school. “Big box schools, ” Dr. Strang and others are saying, “are unhealthy places.”
What can be done to combat the rise of child obesity among Canadian children and teens? Are Healthy Schools policies and banning junk food at lunchtime part of the problem — or the solution? Will it take a looming public health crisis among today’s younger generation to snap provincial politicians and school board administrators out of their daze? When will education policy makers wake up to the long-term impact of school consolidation and long bus rides on children, adults, and community life?