Obesity Childhood Schools

Childhood obesity programs require a multi-disciplinary approach that includes parents, health care providers, businesses, government agencies and the school system. Of these many and varied groups, parents and schools have the most opportunities to directly influence children’s attitudes towards healthy eating and physical exercise. The relationship between schools and obesity, however, is often problematic.

Nutrition in Schools

According to U.S. federal regulations, foods and beverages that have “minimal nutritional value” cannot be offered in a school cafeteria during meal times. Such foods include carbonated beverages, sugar-based candies, water ices and chewing gum.

A report in the State Education Standard (2004) points out several limitations with this regulation. While such foods are not permitted within the cafeteria, there is no mandate prohibiting their sale outside of the cafeteria — in school shops, vending machines, concession stands or other venues. Nor do foods of “minimal nutritional value” include many high-fat/high-sugar junk foods. High-calorie fruit drinks (many of which have calorie counts as high as carbonated beverages), chocolate, potato chips, doughnuts and other fast foods are routinely offered in school cafeterias.

Funding accounts, at least partially, for the complexities of nutrition in schools. Vending machines, fast food adverting and “pouring rights” are ways for cash-strapped schools to raise money. The National Bureau of Economic Research (2005) found that junk food and fast-food advertising are most prevalent in schools facing the greatest economic challenges.

On a more positive note, schools experimenting with sales of healthy snacks have discovered that children, in the absence of junk food, will purchase the healthier food, suggesting better nutrition in schools can go hand-in-hand with fundraising.

Physical Education and Childhood Obesity Programs

A study by the California Department of Education (2004) revealed that physically fit students perform better on achievement tests that their less-fit peers. The old idea of a healthy body and a healthy mind holds true.

Unfortunately, emphasis on the results of standardized tests, coupled with financial shortcomings, has resulted in many schools cutting back on both structured and unstructured physical activities. The education publication District Administration (2006) estimates that one-third of elementary schools have no regular recess schedule, and only one-third of teenagers exercise more than 20 minutes, at least three days a week. Physical education is often sacrificed, with negative results on obesity prevention programs and academic achievement.

Again, there is hope. Schools concerned with obesity are reintroducing physical education, including offering extracurricular physical activity to interested students. One program, the International Walk to School Day, helps schools and communities establish safe routes for students to walk to school instead of driving or riding buses.

Obesity in Schools and the Community

The learning environment of schools makes them uniquely positioned to further the goals of childhood obesity programs. Schools alone, however, cannot deal with the national obesity epidemic alone. Concerned parents and members of the community can help by:

  • Lobbying for childhood obesity program funding at K-12 school levels
  • Supporting better nutrition in schools
  • Volunteering with physical education.


District Administration. (2006). Fighting obesity: What schools can do. Retrieved April 21, 2010, from http://www.districtadministration.com/viewarticle.aspx?articleid=574.

Gorman, L. (n.d.). Junk food availability in schools raises obesity. Retrieved April 21, 2010, from http://www.nber.org/digest/sep05/w11177.html.

National School Boards Association. (n.d.). Childhood obesity and schools. Retrieved April 21, 2010, from http://www.nsba.org/MainMenu/SchoolHealth/obesity-and-schools.aspx.

State Education Standard. (2004). The role of schools in preventing childhood obesity. Retrieved April 21, 2010, from http://www.cdc.gov/HealthyYouth/physicalactivity/pdf/roleofschools_obesity.pdf.