As a superintendent responsible for 2,600 students in grades K-12, I’ve seen first-hand how the school environment — such as whether students are served healthy meals or are able to walk to and from school safely — influences their health and their ability to learn and succeed.
Our kids are facing an uphill battle. Obesity rates among children and adults have risen substantially over the past 30 years. Today, nearly one in three children are overweight or obese, while adult obesity rates exceed 20 percent in all 50 states. The incidence of obesity-related diseases — and the cost of treating them — are a significant burden on our health and economy.
Our community has taken a variety of steps to help people stay healthy, including opening supermarkets that sell healthy foods in underserved neighborhoods, expanding early education opportunities, designing safe and accessible streets and encouraging more physical activity. We need to work together to build on this progress.
I’m especially pleased that our schools have led the way by working to make the healthy choice the easy choice for students. We are serving more fresh food made from scratch in our cafeterias. We’re also getting students directly involved in their meals through our Middle School Nutrition Council, which brings together students to taste and vote on new, healthier menu items. These student ambassadors then spread the word to their classmates about these exciting new additions.
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It may take time, but it’s a strategy that works. We’ve seen the transformation that happens when fruits and vegetables are available at every meal. Students enjoy serving themselves from the garden bars in each school, which allows them to select their favorites, take as much as they want to eat and also sample new healthy choices.
We’re also making sure our students have plenty of opportunities to be active. We started running clubs at district elementary schools called Wranglers on the Run and Girls on the Run. Students participate in weekly wellness activities that culminate in local 5K events. Family and friends are invited to participate with them, and, last fall, more than 80 students, staff members and family members participated in charity 5K events. It’s inspiring to see how these young students are encouraging adults in their families to get active.
I am proud of our successes to date, but we’re far from the finish line when it comes to reversing the childhood obesity epidemic. While we’re seeing some progress among children, it’s still fragile and uneven, and we need to push harder to reduce obesity among adults. But the steps we’re taking here at home to help our kids and adults eat healthier and be more active are setting an example for communities and school districts across the country.
As we transition into spring and summer, we need to make sure that the progress we’re making with our school meals — like the vegetables in our gardens — isn’t cut short but allowed to grow. We need parents, business leaders and policymakers at all levels of government to join us and ensure that our kids live in communities and attend schools that help them grow up healthy, stay healthy and succeed for the rest of their lives.
Bart Goering is the Superintendent of Schools for Spring Hill School District in Spring Hill.