We should promote healthy lifestyles for America’s kids

Childhood obesity has become a major health problem in the United States and data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that an estimated 17 percent of children and adolescents, ages 2 to 19 years, are overweight — a number which has tripled in the last 20 years.  We know kids are not eating enough fruits and vegetables, spend too much time in front of the TV or computer screen, are not getting enough exercise, and consume too many sugary beverages. Not only is childhood obesity likely to lead to overweight or obese adults, but children are increasingly suffering from health conditions traditionally associated with adulthood, including Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. As co-chairman of the Congressional Diabetes Caucus, I am deeply concerned about the increasing number of children and adolescents in the U.S. who are being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.

Parents bear primary responsibility for ensuring their children eat well and exercise regularly. Schools, however, also play a critical role by giving children access to nutritious meals and snacks, nutrition education, and time to engage in daily physical activity. Engaging children in all aspects of life, at homes, in school, or in daycare or afterschool programs is key to instilling the importance of a healthy lifestyle, which we know is so crucial.

The 2004 law known as the Child Nutrition and Women, Infants, and Children Reauthorization Act, puts in place several comprehensive solutions that incorporate healthy habits, nutritional education, and increased physical activity with ongoing efforts to combat hunger and food insecurity to address the childhood obesity epidemic. The law also includes a provision I authored allowing school districts to develop and implement a comprehensive wellness policy in their schools, including nutrition guidelines and education, physical activity goals, and school-based wellness activities developed to address the specific demographics, economic situations, and local food preferences of the students. The wellness policies aim to change students’ eating habits while simultaneously encouraging increased physical activity.

Studies have shown that as a result of this initiative, schools are offering more healthy food options, the school nutrition programs are more visible to students and adults, and there have been changes in healthy choices and behaviors of students.

In Delaware, each school district’s wellness plan is reflective of the specific needs of the students. Overall, each wellness policy in the state of Delaware works to promote the integration of nutrition education into all curriculum areas for students in grades K-12. Many limit portion sizes of snacks and beverages served on school property, limit the use of food as a reward, and disseminate consistent nutrition messages throughout schools, classrooms, cafeterias, and Delaware homes and communities.

Increasing physical activity and promoting better nutrition are integral to combating the obesity epidemic and keeping our kids healthy. One fitting example in Delaware is at the Austin D. Baltz Elementary School, where all students have recess after lunch and the school implemented the “Hip Hop Pageant Program” to encourage cardiovascular activity through dancing to hip-hop music.

Understanding the importance of incorporating physical activity in the school curriculum, I am supporting legislation, the Fitness Integrating with Teaching (FIT) Kids Act, which would improve standards for physical education by encouraging public schools to provide regular and quality physical education and ensure kids learn about healthy lifestyles as part of their regular curriculum. The FIT Kids Act would also establish methods for states and school districts to collect and analyze physical education programs so that the best practices can be disseminated.

While many schools are implementing successful programs, several challenges remain. Schools need strong leadership and a commitment to enhancing their nutrition and wellness policies at the local level. The support of communities and families is also essential to ensure that the work of the wellness plans extends beyond the school day.

As Congress works to reauthorize child nutrition legislation next year, we need to collaborate with state and local school districts to further address the important and complex issue of childhood obesity by supporting programs that promote nutrition education and physical activity; implementing programs proven to improve health outcomes; and targeting those children who are at the greatest risk. We know that obesity can lead to serious health conditions. Reaching children as early as possible to promote healthy lifestyles will make a difference not only in children’s health but in their health as they reach adulthood.   

Castle is the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education of the Education and Labor Committee, and the co-chairman of the Congressional Diabetes Caucus.