Preventing childhood obesity at school, at home, and in the community
Cornell University’s nutritional sciences expert Wendy Wolfe presents legislative testimony of the childhood obesity epidemic in the US. Her testimony is an example of how faculty members and professional staff from the College of Human Ecology provide technical expertise to inform policy department in issues of public health.
Cornell nutritional sciences expert presents legislative testimony on the childhood obesity epidemic in the state.
WENDY WOLFE, A RESEARCH associate in the Division of Nutritional Sciences, testified in June before the New York State Assembly Task Force on Food, Farm, and Nutrition Policy. She spoke primarily on the role of state policy in preventing childhood obesity at school. She also presented information about community programs for childhood obesity prevention. Her testimony is an example of how faculty members and professional staff from the College of Human Ecology provide technical expertise to inform policy development in issues of public health.
Wolfe collaborates with county educators in Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program to develop programs that address childhood obesity prevention within the state. She also chairs the statewide coalition, New York State Action for Healthy Kids, part of a national initiative to improve the health and education performance of children through better nutrition and physical activity in schools.
“The childhood obesity epidemic is an indicator of underlying poor nutrition habits and low physical activity,” Wolfe testified. “We need the state to take leadership in the battle to combat the rising rates of childhood obesity and its complications, such as diabetes in children as young as 11. This leadership needs to include policy and funding.”
In her comments on the role of state policy in preventing childhood obesity at school, Wolfe focused on physical education, beverages in school vending machines, and a Ia carte items and snack times.
“Recent research suggests a correlation not only between physical activity and obesity but also between physical activity in children and improved learning,” she said. She cited information from several studies indicating that academic achievement improves even when increased time for physical education reduces the time for academics. “Given the data, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are recommending daily physical education on a national basis,” Wolfe testified.
New York State mandates 120 minutes of physical education per week for children in school. However, there is a lack of enforcement, Wolfe said, noting results of research she conducted in 1991. Schools that offered at least the mandated 120 minutes of physical education per week had significantly lower rates of studentobesity than schools that did not provide the required physical education, even after adjusting for differences in socioeconomic status. “We need not only to enforce the mandate, but we also need to provide funding and incentives to help schools offer more physical education,” Wolfe testified. She recommended that physical education programs focus on fitness skills and activities that can be continued throughout a lifetime and that after-school sports programs be expanded.
Wolfe explained that sweetened beverages increasingly are available to students both during and after school, including during lunch (although officially this is banned), and that vending machines in schools may be contributing inadvertently to childhood obesity. She cited research suggesting that the consumption of soda, in particular, may contribute to childhood obesity. “Most adolescents-65 percent of the girls and 74 percent of the boys-consume soft drinks daily,” Wolfe said. “Currently, soft drinks constitute the leading source of added sugars in the diet of adolescents, exceeding the daily limits for total added sugar consumption recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”
Wolfe told the Assembly task force that she supports the legislative bill (A6563/S4556) expanding the ban on soda in school vending machines, recommending the bill be revised to ban all highly sugar-sweetened beverages, not just soda. She referred to studies indicating it is the sugar, not the carbonation, that is the important factor: diet soda, for example, does not contribute to children becoming overweight. Flavored milk is a healthier alternative to other sweetened beverages since it is nutrient rich, Wolfe explained, but she suggested that it should be available in school vending machines in single-serving containers-eight ounces, according to the USDA definition-and not the larger, 16-ounce sizes now available. She also recommended that flavored low-fat milk is a better alternative than flavored whole milk, citing that a 16ounce container of flavored whole milk (the most readily available option for school vending machines) contains 25 percent of a student’s total caloric needs for a day and 50 percent of the recommended amount of saturated fat.
“There is increasing evidence that students learn better when they eat better diets,” Wolfe testified. “Schools are institutions of learning…and play an important role in teaching children about healthful lifestyles. Low-nutrient products are not appropriate in the school environment. I recommend limiting the amount of added sugar in beverages sold in schools, rather than limiting only soda.”
Wolfe also testified that a la carte items sold at school lunch times posed nutritional problems for children, as did snack times in elementary schools. She said that her research found that, in addition to the regular lunch program, 97 percent of elementary schools sold ice cream during lunchtime, 70 percent sold cookies or snack-cakes, and 46 percent sold chips. “What children need are more fruits and vegetables, not these types of foods,” Wolfe said. She noted a successful USDA pilot program that funded the provision of fruits and vegetables for snack times in middle and high schools. She also presented research studies that found fruit and vegetable intake to be a promising intervention strategy for preventing children becoming overweight. Citing existing programs such as the Cornell Farm to School Program, Wolfe suggested that the provision of fruits and vegetables to New York schools would support the state’s agriculture as well as benefit children and their communities.
In her testimony, Wolfe also stressed that community programs were important for the prevention ofchildhood obesity and need to be fully funded. She referenced the positive results of programs such as the Cooking Up Fun initiative of Cornell Cooperative Extension, which helps youth gain independent food and cooking skills in afterschool settings, skills they then share with their families. She also cited Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, which targets low-income parents and youth, as well as daycare providers, teaching them how to plan and prepare low-cost healthy meals and snacks.
Wolfe voiced support for the Childhood Obesity Prevention Act (A2800/S2405), especially its emphasis on health promotion campaigns to highlight increased consumption of low-calorie, highnutrient foods and decreased consumption of high-calorie, lownutrient foods.
“Shockingly, the cost of treating obesity-related diseases in the United States now exceeds the cost of tobacco- and alcoholrelated diseases combined. The state will find itself paying for this later if it doesn’t act now,” Wolfe said.
The Childhood Obesity Prevention Act was signed into law in New York on October 1, due in part to supportive testimony such as Wolfe’s, although support is still needed to authorize its funding.
Copyright Cornell University Dec 2003