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Oklahoma school districts work on childhood obesity problem

Updated:
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- With 15 percent of Oklahoma's youth overweight, state school districts are planning how they will emphasize healthy living to students for the upcoming school year.

A new law requires each Oklahoma public school to establish a committee of six by Sept. 1 that will study and make recommendations to the school principal regarding health and physical education, physical activity, nutrition and health services.

Oklahoma's problems with overweight children are in line with national trends that have seen the percentage of obese children triple to about 16 percent over the last two decades, the Oklahoma State Board of Health says. Diabetes and heart disease are among the medical conditions associated with obesity.

Sen. Bernest Cain, D-Oklahoma City, hopes his Healthy and Fit Kids Act of 2004 will help with the problem and a coalition is working on a document giving suggestions to schools for dealing with the issue.

One suggestion that failed to win legislative support was to restrict school vending machines that offer youngsters fattening snacks and soft drinks. The education lobby opposed the idea because these machines are big moneymakers for schools, and there is no easy way to replace this revenue.

Two years ago, the Tahlequah school district removed carbonated drinks from school vending machines in favor of juices, sports drinks and water. This decision has cost the district about $100,000 in lost revenue that would have been distributed to student clubs, said school superintendent Paul Hurst.

"We just decided we were not going to make money off of things that have no nutritional value," Hurst said.

Now the school district is considering offering healthier snacks in the vending machines, rather than sugar-filled treats, said assistant superintendent Deborah Coley.

Exercise is the other half of the obesity equation.

Oklahoma is the third most sedentary state in the nation behind Louisiana and Mississippi, according to the state health board.

"When my children were growing up they did eat junk food, but they played outside and that kind of balanced it out," Coley said. "Now kids have air conditioning, television and video games and eat more junk food. And they just aren't getting the exercise."

Hurst said he also wants to improve health education and get parents more involved in monitoring the weight of their children.

"We only have the children 13 percent of the day," he said. "Their health will also depend on what they are learning in the other 87 percent."

Tulsa Public Schools, the state's largest school district, is also working on new ways to educate students about health.

The district has approved the hiring of a nutrition educator who will travel from school to school, giving health education presentations in classrooms, said Hossein Akhtarkhavari, child nutrition director for the district.

Breakfast In The Classroom is another program scheduled for the fall. Students will eat breakfast in class and discuss its nutritional value.

"Everyone would get an opportunity to eat and this will create a family-like atmosphere," he said. "Then we can gradually begin to put more healthier choices on the menu."

Tulsa schools sell carbonated drinks from vending machines, but these machines are shut off during the lunch hour to encourage students to buy healthier drinks available through the school cafeteria.

"As a country and as a state, we are behind with nutrition," Akhtarkhavari said. "Tulsa wants to be the district that will lead the state into better health."

Oklahoma City schools leaders are still forming their response to the new law.

Cain hopes the business community might be persuaded to offer monetary incentives to school districts that take the lead in fighting childhood obesity.

"We are just excited about this," he said. "We think this can be a really creative time for many schools. Long term, we just want our kids to learn that they have to take care of themselves."
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