Florida has been trying to turn back the scales on childhood and adolescent obesity and rates have declined in recent years. Still, the numbers are too high for many, and one group is asking the Leon County School District to do more to keep kids at a healthy weight.
Kids between five and 17 spend the majority of their time in schools. So wellness advocates say it’s only fitting that schools encourage better health habits. Local pediatrician J.C. Singh says most kids are eating two out of three meals a day at a school.
“So if we have a policy, we can affect, we can really make a big difference," said Singh. "Also, you have to understand…these rates are much higher in Title 1 schools, in certain ethnic races. And you may be the only people, the school may be the only thing that affects these children, the school may be the only safe space these kids can go out and play.”
Singh is part of a group of local health officials from different agencies that recently addressed the Leon County School board about the issue of childhood and adolescent obesity. Allison Wyman, a former school nurse, presented a survey of local students in grades first, third and sixth. The report found kids at Roberts Elementary, Bucklake and Deerlake Middle School students had the lowest rates of overweight and obesity, while Apalachee Elementary School, Fort Braden and Raa Middle School had the highest rates.
“In Apalachee, 41.6 percent of the children in that school are considered overweight and obese. Fort Braden, 44.8, and Raa and Fort Braden, in our middle school, 6th grade, 50 percent of our children are considered overweight or obese.”
The topic even came up at a recent Florida Chamber of Commerce meeting, where attendees received data suggesting about 12 percent of Florida kids statewide are obese. Another 16 percent are overweight. But those numbers have also been dropping in recent years. Despite that, pediatrician Jaycee Singh says the consequences of being overweight or obese for children aren’t going away.
“How children perceive themselves, they have anxiety, school phobia, emotional problems later on in life, it affects their heart—these are kids who are going on to have heart disease in their 30’s maybe even late 20’s.”
Singh says she is even seeing kids in their teens developing Type 2 diabetes—something usually associated with adults.
The federal government has also changed its federally subsidized school lunch program to push schools into healthier, but some also claim pricier, lunch options for kids. Whole Child Leon’s Courtney Atkins has recommendations the district can do to encourage healthier habits.
“Encourage the principals and administrators to make the healthy choices the easy choice. Don’t use candy as rewards," she said, and "try not to withhold recess or physical activity as punishment. Try not to do remedial work at recess."
Atkins says she’d like to see schools do away with the candy-bar and cookie-dough related fundraisers in favor of runs and walks to raise money. Leon’s student board member Emily Blomeley admits, she’s not always the healthiest of eaters. The Chiles High School student says the district's open campus policy, which allows high schoolers to leave campus for lunch, also impacts eating habits.
“I think definitely working on getting information out about healthier options—I know by Chiles a New Leaf Market just opened up, some of those businesses do a special at lunch for Chiles Students," Blomeley said. " Zaxbys does and wing stop does, and those aren’t necessarily the healthiest destinations.”