Thursday, September 25, 2008
Catherine Wilson, Bureau Chief
Tracking Fat Kids
Starting this September, some local school children will be tested for more than just their academic and athletic abilities. The New York
State Department of Health has mandated that certain area schools must also start keeping records on individual body mass, the body mass
index, or BMI, for each child. The New York State Legislature passed a law in 2007 requiring some schools outside of New York City to collect and report a summary of students’ weight status. To protect student privacy, no personal identifying information will be reported.
“Childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions in New York,” said State Health Commissioner Richard F. Daines, M.D. “The students’ weight data collected and reported with the assistance of school health professionals will help the state, counties, communities, and
school districts better assess what actions are needed to address this threat to our children’s health.”
Daines noted that obesity is associated with increased prevalence of Type 2 diabetes in children and obesity contributes to many chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, joint problems, and some types of cancer.
Poor nutrition and lack of physical activity are the leading causes of obesity. The Health Department already collects data on infectious diseases for the State’s communicable disease prevention efforts. “By collecting vital weight status information, we can begin to treat obesity like other public health threats and better target our prevention efforts,” said Commissioner Daines.
But by tracking the body mass index of school children in mostly affluent school districts, the Health Department is avoiding other contributions to obesity, such as low income and poor education. In addition, many health experts believe that obesity is a side effect of health problems and belies the real source of the problem – poor nutrition.
In November 2007, The Guardian interviewed Dr. Susan Rubin, a Chappaqua holistic nutritionist and the subject of a documentary on
school nutrition, Two Angry Moms. Dr. Rubin has been a strong advocate on improving the nutrition of our school children for almost two
Last November Dr. Rubin warned Guardian readers and state representatives that “obesity is just the tip of the iceberg. Normal weight children will also eventually suffer severe health problems from consuming unhealthy food”.
Dr. Rubin spoke of a “toxic food environment” that she believed was “poisoning our children”. According to her, “By the time a child
graduates from high school they could have conceivably consumed unhealthy ingredients and dangerous additives in 2,340 meals – 180 school
lunches per year for 13 years, and that’s not counting the junk in the snacks in school vending machines, sports drinks at team games, candy
sold at fundraising events, etc.”.
The Guardian asked Dr. Rubin to comment on the new law and the impact it will have on our children’s health. “This law is only
addressing the side effect of obesity” she stressed. “The real issue is our children are over-fed but undernourished. We’re being told that we
should count calories to control our weight and we’re giving our children 100 calorie bags of cookies for their school lunches. But 100 calories of crap is still crap! We have to stop looking at the quantity of our food and concentrate on the quality instead.”
Rubin attributes part of the problem to the nature of health care in our society. “Even our insurance coverage belies the problem; why did medical insurance become known as ‘health’ insurance?” Rubin asked. “Medical care is not health care. Medical care addresses specific
problems in our bodies. Health care is about the whole individual, physical, emotional, and psychological, emphasizing the prevention of
Rubin stressed that, “Good nutrition is one of the major tools in preventing a variety of problems. Kids with better nutrition not only
have better health, but they have better behavior and better grades as well.” Rubin believes that good food affects more than just our health.
“Food affects not only public health, but also social justice and our environment,” she noted.
Recent studies support Rubin’s belief that our children’s health, behavior, and academic achievement depends upon the quality of the
food they consume. When the Appleton, Wisconsin High School was confronted with violence and disruptions, problems necessitating a
full-time police officer on duty, they replaced all processed foods in their cafeterias with nutritious food. The school has noted an improvement in student behavior for the past seven years of the new food program.
School children in Wisconsin schools see the direct impact of food on behavior for themselves by conducting experiments on mice. Mice fed junk food displayed poor sleeping habits, anti-social behavior, and even violence whereas the mice on the nutritious diets slept and behaved
normally. The children also learned that the incorrect behaviors can be redeemed by weaning the junk-addicted mice back onto healthy diets.
The problem of poor nutrition and what Dr. Rubin calls “the toxic food environment” is spread across all socio/economic groups and education levels. “We live in a golden ghetto” Rubin said, referring to Westchester County. “Studies show that there is actually a higher level
of dysfunction at higher level income groups.” Rubin attributes this to the quality of the food. “New immigrants from poor countries eat
better than children from rich families.
Rich parents do not feed their children a diet of rice and beans. Instead, parents try to be ‘the cool mom’ by providing Sunny Delight
and other sugar-charged foods to their kids and their friends. They are bombarded with advertising that shows children responding to parents who give their children junk food and they are responding to those messages.
Unfortunately, as the immigrants adopt our poor eating habits and bad diets, they also develop our health problems. The message that only
bad parents make their children eat healthy is echoed on television and movies. A recent movie, “The Nanny Diaries” portrays a health-conscious mother as neurotic and cold and the child is ‘saved’ by a ‘loving’ nanny who feeds him junk food.
The skyrocketing cost of food lately is also having an impact on the quality of food that parents can provide for their children. Due to Federal farm subsidies for sugar, the current cost of a gallon of soda is approximately one-fifth the cost of a gallon of milk. Ironically, that may soon change due to the oil crisis. According to the Food and Water Watch Organization, “Twenty percent of the fossil fuel used in the United States goes toward food production. The U.S. food system includes agricultural production, the processes involved in growing and
harvesting food crops and livestock, as well as the post-agricultural processes of transporting, packaging, and storing food. Only one-fifth of this energy is used in agricultural production, the processes involved in growing and harvesting food crops and livestock, as well as the post-agricultural processes of transporting, packaging, and storing food. Only one-fifth of this energy is used in agricultural production. The rest
is expended moving, processing, packaging, selling, and storing food after it leaves the farm.”
Fertilizers used in the production of food are made from fossil fuels. As fuel prices increase, the cost of fertilized food products will increase as well. According to a report in the United Kingdom issued September 2, 2008, “organic food could become cheaper than other produce.”
Oil is predicted to reach $200 a barrel within five to ten years, pushing the profit margins for fertilized food products lower and increasing
their prices to compensate. Peter Melchett, the policy director of the British Soil Association notes, “As oil inevitably becomes scarcer
and costs more, economic forces increasingly favor organic farming”.
Organic foods contain no pesticides. Therefore, advocates for better school food, such as Dr. Rubin, believe that organic foods are the best food products to serve our children to assure their overall health and well being.
The impact of rising fuel prices echoes Dr. Rubin’s beliefs that food affects more than just our health but also our social environment. She believes that the New York State Health Department and the State Legislature, with their school obesity legislation, are looking at only a narrow aspect of the problem. Global forces along with social issues are impacting what our children eat resulting in negative long-term ramifications to their health. As Rubin notes in her documentary, “It’s not about the cupcakes”. To solve our children’s health problems “we need to look beyond obesity and at the quality of our food”. Dr. Rubin stresses, “We need to consider that every child is at risk.”
The Westchester County School Districts On The Legislative List:
Ardsley Union Free School District
Blind Brook-Rye Union Free School District
Bronxville Union Free School District
Byram Hills Central School District
Dobbs Ferry Union Free School District
Edgemont Union Free School District
Elmsford Union Free School District
Greenburgh Eleven Union Free School District
Greenburgh-North Castle Union Free School District
Harrison Central School District
Hendrick Hudson Central School District
Irvington Union Free School District
Katonah-Lewisboro Union Free School District
Lakeland Central School District
Mount Pleasant Central School District
New Rochelle City School District
Ossining Union Free School District
Peekskill City School District
Pelham Union Free School District
Rye City School District
Scarsdale Union Free School District
Tarrytown Union Free School District
Tuckahoe Union Free School District
Valhalla Union Free School District
White Plains City School District
Noticeably missing from this list are the school districts of
Yonkers and Mount Vernon.