One need not look any further than the recent statistics on obesity — particularly in children — to understand the need to provide students with access to healthy and affordable food choices and opportunities for physical exercise throughout the day.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, nearly 17 percent of children in the United States are obese. Even more troubling, more than 35 percent of children in the nation's capital are obese, according to a report issued last summer by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. This is more than twice the national average, and the ninth highest rate of childhood obesity in the nation, according to the report.

School leaders and elected officials need to recognize that in many areas of the city, school may be a child's only outlet for healthy food choices. As a rising senior at the Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy and as a resident of Ward 7, I see kids go to either a local gas station or a corner store to get candy, chips or soda.

Where I live, there are no supermarkets or local grocery stores located nearby. This means many people, like my own family and I, have to travel to Maryland just to access a grocery store. Other families who lack access to transportation are not as fortunate, meaning they are forced to consume the unhealthy foods sold at nearby corner stores and fast food restaurants. This near total lack of affordable healthy food options results in "food deserts" across D.C. and in many other places throughout the country, especially very urban and very rural areas.


In addition, parents, school administrators and elected officials must be aware that the food served in our schools directly impacts a student's ability to learn. A June 2010 study by the American College of Sports Medicine highlighted the link between physical fitness and school performance. The study looked at 338 sixth-grade students at a small urban school in Illinois and showed that students who met physical fitness standards were more likely to achieve higher academics than those who were less physically fit. Ronald W. Bass, the lead researcher on the study, noted that students meeting the fitness standards were six times more likely to meet or exceed reading standards and more than two and a half times more likely to meet or exceed math standards. Bass suggests that schools need to place more emphasis on physical education and physical activity programs.

I applaud Mr. Bass's recommendation that schools focus on improving physical activity, but feel as though many of my peers in the District and across the country will lack this opportunity. In my own school, the only access my classmates and I have to physical activity is in the alleyway between our cafeteria/auditorium and walking between classrooms. There is no gymnasium.

If the obesity epidemic goes unaddressed both in the District and nationally, it will produce a generation with unhealthy bodies and unhealthy minds that would require high-cost healthcare and lead to lower productivity.

In the District, Councilwoman Mary Cheh has introduced and the city council has passed legislation, the Healthy Schools Act of 2010, which seeks to address the crisis by setting a goal of 60 minutes of physical activity for students each day and improving school nutrition. This bill is a strong start to curbing the growing problem of childhood obesity locally. But additional solutions from both District officials and Congress are needed; particularly solutions that seek to address the root cause by providing communities with accessible and affordable healthy food options so we can eradicate our barren "food deserts." There is no better place to start than in our schools.

With problems from the BP oil spill to the state of the economy, it's easy for the obesity epidemic to fall by the wayside. But lawmakers must recognize that unhealthy children become unhealthy adults, and unhealthy adults require more expensive healthcare, become unable to work and contribute to society, and make it harder for our nation to prosper.

The next time parents research schools for their children, they should ask about nutrition and physical activity programs in the schools.

Ashley Archibald is a rising senior at the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy in the District and is serving in a public policy fellowship at B&D Consulting this summer.