Making the Shift from Raising Awareness to Raising Healthy Kids

04/20/2015 11:55 am ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015

Our healthcare system is criticized for a greater focus on treating versus preventing disease and for not always supporting behavioral changes that lead to positive health outcomes. But many diseases, such as type II diabetes, heart disease, overweight and obesity, are complex societal issues, which many facets of society, and not just the healthcare system, play a role in preventing. Furthermore, just as the problems that have led to poor nutrition, physical inactivity, and overweight among our youth are multifaceted, so too are the solutions.

This week, schools around the country celebrate Every Kid Healthy Week, a moment during the school year to celebrate their health and wellness accomplishments achieved through nutrition and physical activity initiatives. We have come a long way since 2001 when I was Surgeon General and we issued a call to action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity. The growing epidemic required a seismic shift in thinking about how to prevent childhood obesity, keep children from becoming overweight adults and teach lifelong habits necessary to promote health.

We identified schools as a key setting to address this national health challenge, given children spend the most time outside the home there, more than 1,200 hours per year.

Schools provide many opportunities, and share a responsibility, to help children learn healthy habits, if for no other reason than because such habits are intrinsically linked to academic success. Everyone from teachers to principals to food service professionals is positioned to teach and model healthy eating and physical activity for students. After all, schools are where children learn, and they need every advantage to do so.

Progress has been made, but schools remain a critical battle ground. Today 30 million children rely on school meals, and the nutritional quality of those meals has improved but remains an issue of debate. In many communities, the culture of unhealthy snacking has permeated schools, providing new challenges. Daily physical education, too often threatened by budget cuts, can provide a foundation for helping youth meet daily physical activity recommendations; yet daily PE is a reality in only four percent of our elementary schools.

When Action for Healthy Kids issued its first Learning Connection report in 2004, there was a growing body of research that showed associations between decreased academic performance and poor nutrition, inactivity, and overweight. The report focused on the problem, grounding society in the causes of childhood obesity and the cost to children's health and schools' bottom lines. It included nascent examples of schools working to combat the trend, but these were a drop in the bucket, as the movement for change was just beginning.

Today, the evidence linking good nutrition and physical activity with learning, cognition, behavior and academic performance is stronger than ever, detailed in an updated Learning Connection in 2013. We also have countless examples of success and best practices from schools across the country. Campbell Ridge Elementary School in Alexandria, Kentucky went from 69th to 86th percentile for state test scores following a rigorous implementation of the school's wellness policy. Toledo Public Schools in Ohio took a collaborative approach with local advocates and the teacher's union to implement a grab-and-go breakfast program, increasing school breakfast participation by 35 percent over three years. In Gulfport, Mississippi, 28th Street Elementary School transformed its school from one that offered candy rewards and once-weekly physical education classes to one that successfully introduced students to new foods in the cafeteria, holds interactive monthly healthy food tastes tests, and now ensures 60 minutes of physical activity per day.

Adding to the burgeoning research that supports the case for nutrition and physical activity in schools, obesity rate increases across several age categories remain high but appear to be slowing. The prevalence of obesity among children aged 2 to 5 years decreased significantly from 13.9 percent in 2003-2004 to 8.4 percent in 2011-2012. This improvement among our youngest children demonstrates the impact we can have when we intervene at an early age, especially among lower-income children and families. It also shows there is no silver bullet or quick fix to childhood obesity and related chronic diseases.

We have also come to realize that poor health among our youth is not an issue that can be addressed by one organization or entity alone. The gains being made across the country come not from one school or organization, but from a collective effort to impact change. Let's accelerate the movement that began more than a decade ago, no longer just to raise awareness of the threats childhood obesity poses but to shout from the rooftops about the progress being made, the many collaborative efforts, and the steps that schools, parents, communities, and the public and private sectors must continue to make in order to safeguard the health of current and future generations and indeed of our nation.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Action for Healthy Kids, in conjunction with Every Kid Healthy Week taking place in schools nationwide, April 19-25, 2015. For more information about Every Kid Healthy, email