Students Improved Health, Lowered Obesity Rates

If students in the Chula Vista Elementary School District are walking and skipping with more bounce in their steps, it just might be because they are much more fit these days. An extraordinary effort to lower the obesity rate of students is bearing fruit, a recent study has shown.

The height and weight of more than 25,000 pupils in pre-kindergarten through Grade 6 was collected and analyzed during the last quarter of 2012. The data demonstrated a positive downward trend in obesity. The results follow a more than two-year effort to change school and community attitudes on everything from how to differently celebrate a student’s birthday to what students are served in school cafeterias.

Overall, obesity rates declined 3.2 percent—the equivalent of a small school—compared to two years ago.

“Obesity can lead to juvenile diabetes, and the long-term consequences on this scale are staggering,” said Superintendent Francisco Escobedo, Ed.D. “In addition to the life-health issue, we are saving our society hundreds of thousands of dollars in health care costs by reducing the number of obese children today.”

In 2010, the District embarked on a pioneering study to compile the Body Mass Index score of students at each grade level. The data collection was among the most comprehensive in the state and nation in regard to student obesity rates.

The results revealed that almost 40 percent of Kindergarten through Grade 6 students were at an unhealthy weight (overweight and/or obese) for their age and gender. Obesity maps, which indicated the highest rates in red and orange, were layered over a map of the District’s boundaries.

“As a nation, we are getting bigger. Not taller, bigger,” Escobedo said. “In the United States, between 20 percent and 30 percent of our nation’s population is overweight/obese. If you look at Chula Vista, we have the highest rate of diabetes in San Diego County, and the highest ratio of heart attacks as well. In our schools, in 2010, we reflected the United States, with high percentages of overweight/obese students. It was not a good picture.”

When Sharon Hillidge, the District’s health and wellness resource teacher, tells audiences that 40 percent of District students were at an unhealthy weight and that this generation of students is not expected to outlive their parents’ generation, some people gasp.

“I think the most critical thing was actually sharing the information with the community about the data we collected two years ago,” Hillidge said. “We presented our school and District-level data to principals, parents, health care professionals, the Chula Vista Chamber of Commerce, city and county officials. The reaction from the community was the same reaction that we first had. It was startling.”

District officials quickly realized it would take a comprehensive response from all stakeholders to effect change.

“When we took our obesity maps and layered in environmental factors, such as a school’s proximity to fast-food restaurants and access, or rather the lack of access to parks and green space, we all realized that the problem and the solutions didn’t stop at the schoolhouse doors,” Hillidge said.

The results prompted a multi-faceted initiative involving the Board of Education, students, families, healthcare professionals, and city and county leaders. Last May, the Board approved revisions to the District’s Wellness Policy. Key guidelines include:

  • Delivering foods and beverages through federally mandated reimbursable school meal programs that meet or exceed federal regulations.  For example, the District has chosen not to serve flavored milk at meals or snacks. 
  • Prohibiting food items in celebration of a student’s birthday on the school site during the school day. For example, instead of cupcakes, a parent is encouraged to bring books, pencils or other non-food items to celebrate their child’s birthday at school.
  • Permitting no more than two parties/celebrations with food for each class, per school year, to be scheduled after lunch whenever possible.  All food items should be store-bought, pre-packaged, and/or pre-wrapped for food safety and allergies.

    The school garden at Rosebank Elementary is one way to enhance nutrition education while encouraging students to take ownership of their health.

    The school garden at Rosebank Elementary is one way to enhance nutrition education while encouraging students to take ownership of their health.

  • Restricting school staff and other entities from using non-compliant food as a reward for academic performance, accomplishments, or classroom behavior.  The District emphasizes non-food incentives as alternatives to all school staff.

In addition to policy changes, a series of community initiatives and health partnerships enhanced the effort, Hillidge said.

“We had a great response from public health officials and city officials. Whether focusing more attention on Safe Routes to School programs, which include improving sidewalks and pedestrian access to schools, or encouraging local markets to provide healthier options, the community has been very supportive of what we have done,” Hillidge said.

“We have also seen a renewed vigor when it comes to school and community garden projects. The growth and revitalization of school gardens help us to incorporate hands-on nutrition education, so kids can make healthier choices and feel like they have taken ownership of their health.”

At Lilian J. Rice Elementary, the school community underwent a health-focused transformation with the help of doctors from the nearby Chula Vista Family Clinic. To get parents and students alike moving, wellness fairs included Zumba. Rice was among the leaders in schools in western Chula Vista in reducing student obesity.

“We’re not yet where we want to be but we are definitely closer to that point,” Rice Elementary Principal Ernesto Villanueva said.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

7 Comments on “Students Improved Health, Lowered Obesity Rates”

  1. Katrina Moses March 21, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

    It’s not the schools fault these children are unhealthy-obese. What examples are being giving for the children who are healthy? We punish good behavior by taking their flavored milk and parties away? REALLY?! Use our resources to educate our children in English/Grammer, Mathmatics, and Social Studies. Provide them more books and computers which is what is truly needed.

    • chulavistaesd March 21, 2013 at 4:53 pm #

      Hi, Ms. Moses. Thanks for the interest in this subject. Nutrition education includes something for everyone, even those who are in the healthy weight zone. Slicing fruit, for example, is a sensible way to entice students to eat fruit, especially students who might not want to eat a whole fruit. Parties have not been taken away. What we encourage is celebrating a party differently. Instead of passing out cupcakes to a classroom to observe a birthday celebration, why not pass out books, pencils or choosing a game to celebrate? We believe that, during the school day, our students deserve healthy options. There is a well-documented link between health and student achievement. In our District, every school exceeds the 800 benchmark score on the state’s Academic Performance Index. Our District strives to provide healthy learning environments so that all students can succeed.

      • Katrina Moses March 21, 2013 at 7:51 pm #

        There is nothing wrong with cupcakes as to opposed to pencils, books, etc., it’s a special occasionI. If all of our schools are over the 800 percent benchmark like you stated… Then I am confused as to how obese/unhealthy our students truly are? What’s really wrong with having flavored milk at lunch or a small dessert other than fruit? Moderation not elimination has always been known to work out better in the long run if healthy habits are being taught properly. 🙂

      • chulavistaesd March 22, 2013 at 10:32 am #

        Hi, we can understand how it might appear as only one birthday, or one cupcake, honoring a single, special occasion. In our lower grades, it really meant 22-24 birthday celebrations. We used cupcakes as an example. At many schools, it was a large sheetcake, supplemented with sugary fruit punch, and a party favor bag of sugary treats. In schools, these matters are complicated by the fact that there are students with food allergies, peanuts as one example. We agree that moderation is key. We preach balance as well. While we understand our efforts might not please everyone, we hope you understand our motivation is sincere and well-intentioned. Thank you for taking time to comment. We love that you are so interested in the subject. Contact us any time. Have a great day! 🙂

      • Katrina Moses March 22, 2013 at 12:11 pm #

        24 celebrations over a course of a school year…. I would consider that a treat. :)) It’s not as complication as one would have you to believe. I understand everyone is trying to keep funding for research and such. Let’s not take the fun out of school and learning. A small sweet treat, including dietary special needs children, EVERYONES happy. I’d love to call you but I have no name or number for contact you. 🙂

  2. chulavistaesd March 22, 2013 at 3:42 pm #

    There are plenty of fun activities that do not involve sugary foods. Much of what we developed in terms of policy changes came in collaboration with parents. When we presented the data, or had guest speakers from the medical community, it was very evident that our community has a serious health issue on its hands. Even before our Board formally adopted our new Wellness Policy, we had the data presented to the district’s PTAs, who in turn made changes on their own. Parents pulled together to effect a positive change. For more information, contact the Office of Communications, 619-425-9600, extension 1328. Or email us at: 🙂

    • Katrina Moses March 22, 2013 at 6:20 pm #

      Thank you for your input. Was there ever a mention of P.E./Health class as well? And is there a name to whom is replying?? 😀

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: