Childhood obesity has been characterized as the most serious and prevalent nutritional disorder in the nation. Since 1980, its prevalence has almost tripled. According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 17% of children and adolescents between the ages of 2 and 19 are now obese, and this number is only increasing. This problem must be addressed by the American educational system. Schools must focus on creating not only an intellectually capable individual, but also a physically healthy one for the benefit of the United States.
The problems with childhood obesity are many and varied, but one of the clearest issues is its easy transferability into adult obesity as adolescents age. Obesity obviously imposes personal costs, but also has huge external costs that effect all Americans. In 2008, estimates showed that adult obesity (considered to be a partial result of childhood obesity) imposed medical costs that were $1429 higher for obese individuals than for their non-obese peers. The social costs totaled a massive $147 billion. To put this into perspective, the federal government took in about $280 billion in revenues from corporate taxes in the same year. These costs translate into higher health care premiums for all insurance subscribers, and increased outlays for Medicare and Medicaid.
While school breakfast and lunch programs offering balanced meals with high ratios of nutrition to calories are necessary, suggesting these programs will solve the problem of childhood obesity reminds me of a popular proverb: “Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime.” If you think of this in terms of the school system’s role in nutrition, it would sound more like, “Give a kid a healthy meal, and he will be healthy for a day. Teach a kid to make healthy decisions, and he will be healthy for a lifetime.” That’s why I suggest incorporating more nutritional education into lower school’s curricula.
According to a the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), practically all public schools offer some form of nutrition education somewhere within the curriculum, but many are simply integrating it into the “total curriculum,” meaning that it is briefly mentioned in a variety of classes. However, it is rare that the information is presented in a focused manner, meant to educate children about making long-term healthy choices. It is more likely that the schools focus on increasing knowledge about what is meant by good nutrition, rather than emphasizing motivation, attitudes, and eating behavior. Less than one-third of schools provide thorough coverage of topics related to motivation, attitudes, and eating behaviors. Additionally, only one-third of school districts have an employee responsible for coordinating the nutrition education of their students.
I suggest that each district be mandated to have an employee on staff to coordinate nutrition education for students. The main goal for this employee should be to create an actionable education plan to influence student motivation, attitudes, and eating behaviors, and implement it, in health or science classes, to create habits of healthy eating.
Now, it’s easy to say that this would put a massive burden on our educational budget. After all, with approximately 13,500 school districts in the United States, and an average teacher salary of around $40,000, it would cost around $540 million. If you double that cost to take into account training programs and costs of altering a small part of the curriculum, we’d be at about $1 billion in costs from my radical plan. But let’s compare the costs of education to the social costs of the obesity itself: $147 billion. It amounts to 0.37%. So if we can get even 1% of children to avoid obesity, the benefits would far outweigh the costs.