Despite doubt expressed by scientists that anti-obesity programs actually work, the evidence pointing to a decline in childhood obesity rates in many American cities should be heralded as good news -- particularly for those of us on the front lines of the food reform movement. Although the drops are small, about five percent in Philadelphia and New York and three percent in Los Angeles, the fact that the needle is finally moving in the right direction indicates that (at the very least) some of our efforts are working. Before popping any champagne (or perhaps sparkling water), it should be noted that, according to the CDC, 17 percent of children under 20 and 36 percent of adults are still obese and that disparities across income and ethnicity are disproportionately borne by people of color in low-income communities.
While researchers say they are "not sure what is behind the declines," given that the initiatives profiled in the article (and myriad others across the country) are operating in school based settings, it seems reasonable to conclude that schools have a significant role to play in anti-obesity campaigns. Nonetheless, scientists and skeptics alike are right to say that individual, one-time efforts do not produce results, but are rather a predictable failure, given the entrenched nature of the problem and the complexity of the forces acting on our current food system and food choices. Moreover, even school-based efforts are unlikely to create deep and lasting change without first establishing new parameters which promote a culture of health and wellness in schools.
Meaningful transformation of school culture requires the buy-in of adult stakeholders -- i.e. teachers, administrators and school staff -- the people actually responsible for establishing cultural norms, enacting policies and initiatives and communicating standards to students, parents and the community at large. We can't expect students to make healthy choices (either in or out of school) while the adults in their learning communities are plunking down sugary drinks, chips and candy bars on their desks and ignoring conventional wisdom about eating well-balanced meals. At the same time, we can't expect teachers to act as role models for their students without giving them the knowledge they need to make healthier eating and buying decisions and supporting their own health and wellness needs.
Schools should be viewed as powerful platforms for continuing to promote healthier eating, food system reform and environmental sustainability. By ignoring the health of employees -- the over six million people employed by the public school system -- not only is a valuable asset put at risk but a critical opportunity for activating school personnel as agents of change is lost.
Deb Lewison Grant and Carolyn Cohen are co-founders of Food Fight, a NYC based nonprofit organization aimed at revolutionizing the way people eat and think about food.