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Students learning to fight fat with education

By By BARBIE MORSE BURNETTE, Staff Writer
As growing trends eat away good health for many American youth, Beaufort County Schools are working to fight the fat and promote healthy lifestyles.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, between 16 and 33 percent of children and adolescents are obese, meaning they are 30 percent above their ideal body weight.
As stated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity increases the risk for illnesses such as high blood pressure, type II diabetes, heart disease and stroke, gallbladder disease, arthritis, sleep disturbances, breathing problems and certain types of cancers.
Unhealthy weight gain due to poor diet and lack of exercise is responsible for over 300,000 deaths each year, according to the CDC. The annual cost to society for obesity is estimated at nearly $100 billion.
Beaufort County School Superintendant Anthony Parker believes the fast pace of modern society has contributed to a higher consumption of high fat fast foods and larger portion sizes such as french fries- which can be super sized. Parker also said technology has effected obesity rates as more and more children spend time indoors to watch television, use computers and play video games instead of exercising.
"We have to teach healthful living," Parker said. "We have to promote it in schools and work to make sure students understand it's a lifelong obligation."
Teaching healthy living is promoted among the entire school district, he said, but it's up to each school to decide to what level and degree.
One school's plan
P.S. Jones Middle School in Washington takes fighting obesity to the highest degree.
Alice Cole is the manager of the school's cafeteria and serves as the advisor to the P.S. Jones Healthy Lifestyles Nutrition Advisory Council Team.
Each year the team works on a project related to a nutrition theme which is judged at state level competitions. Winners of that round advance to a national level.
Cole said the students were amazed at learning how obesity affects society and were eager to make healthy lifestyles this year's theme.
The teams chose to raise awareness of obesity and the health risks associated with it not only among other students but among parents, staff and the community.
The team set a goal to have 50 percent of the student body and 50 percent of school staff to sign a pledge card vowing to exercise for 30 minutes a day or to walk one mile each day.
The team has promoted their mission in classrooms and to the Parent Teacher Association explaining not only health risks but providing figures on how obesity increases insurance and pharmaceutical costs for everyone.
"Our vision for P.S. Jones Middle School and our community is that we will form healthy habits now that will benefit us for a lifetime," Cole wrote about the team's goal.
The team exceeded that goal-56 percent of students and 66 percent of staff signed a pledge card.
"I hope we at least made them think about it," Cole commented.
Cole said for many children, the effects of obesity really begin to show up during the middle school years.
"After they've lived that lifestyle for so many years, it really starts to show at this age," she said.
Physical Education is not required for middle school students, she added.
That is why staff involvement is so valuable, Cole pointed out, because it sets an example for the students. Yet, it will take some time to see the results, she said, because it takes a long time to break those unhealthy habits.
The plight of school cafeterias
The cafeteria is doing its part too, Cole said.
"We've cut back on the grease we use and the fat and salt used in food too. We still trying to make it taste good but we're trying to make it healthy too," she said.
Portion sizes of meals are in accordance with state law, Cole said, but students often want to buy additional items. "They have no clue about moderation," she commented. Cole will allow them to buy possibly an extra order of french fries but not four as some students ask to do.
"They don't like that they can't buy all they want. And we could make more money but I don't allow them to do that," she said.
Cole explained that Child Nutrition Services is the only group in the school not funded by the federal government. The cafeteria must make enough money to pay salaries, benefits, equipment costs, food and other expenses.
Cole said although she would rather include some healthier snack options for students, she has to provide snacks that will sell.
Vending machines do include some healthy options, she said, and drink machines include all fruit based beverages which are often high in sugar, but are necessary to maintain operating costs.
"This really does concern me," Cole said of obesity, "It amazes me that we did not even know this was going on."
It's scary, she said, that children are being raised to think they can eat what ever they want whenever they want.
In recent years, news reports focused on eating disorders and young girls who were too skinny.
The line, Cole said, is somewhere in the middle.
Cole said she didn't know if eating disorders weren't happening as much or if society just wasn't hearing about it as much but she said, "I don't want any child to feel like they have to be too skinny."
The point Cole emphasized is to be healthy.
The elementary and high school approach
Other schools are doing their part to combat obesity and teach healthy habits as well.
Washington High School Guidance Counselor Liz Hampton said high schoolers must complete a health class and physical education class in order to graduate from Beaufort County schools.
Students may also take Physical Education classes as elective courses she said, which is a popular choice among the student body.
According to the school's Athletic Director Brian Paschall, students can chose from a variety of Physical Education classes such as team sports, physical conditioning and weight lifting.
Hampton said she was not aware of a schoolwide obesity program offered at the school but said a school nurse is available to educate students one-on-one.
Eastern Elementary Physical Education teacher Joannie Kellum said she begins teaching her elementary students those skills the first week of class.
The students watch a video which teaches them to take care of their heart, not to smoke, not to eat too much and to exercise regularly.
Kellum says she then reinforces that all year long.
Kindergardeners and first graders get 40 minutes of physical education time while the pre-kindergarden students get 20 minutes, she said. That is separate from any activity time they may get during their regular classes.
Lots of the time, the students don't even know they're exercising, she said, because they're just having fun. She always teaches them what muscles they're working and explains that exercise is for children as well as adults like mom and dad.
A parent's role
Kellum, Cole and Parker all expressed that parents have a tremendous role in teaching students healthy habits that wane off obesity.
"Parents have to be role models for children to emulate," Parker said. "We have to work to promote it in schools but a lot has to be done at home."
Cole said she has lost weight since signing a pledge card at P.S. Jones to power walk every day and says she feels so much better since starting.
"I don't like to tell somebody to do something I'm not doing," she commented.
Although fast food and other high fat foods are sometimes convenient, they should not become part of a regular diet, Parker and Cole both agreed.
If children learn moderation then they'll know when it's ok to splurge once in a while, Parker commented, but parents have to set the precedent.
Local schools are also helping in other ways. Schools now have more athletic opportunities available to students than in years past.
"There are more sports to chose from now so more children can benefit," Parker said.
It used to be just basics like football, basketball and baseball, Parker said, but today students have far more choices such as volleyball, golf and track.
Now, he added, coaches have to recruit students because they are not as interested in athletics as they once were.
"We encourage kids to become involved in athletics and physical activity but we don't see that today," he commented.
Federal Iniative
A new federal ad campaign is designed to overcome just that.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed the VERB. It's what you do campaign to promote healthy lifestyles among 9 to 13-year-olds by increasing positive activities and displacing unhealthy, risky behaviors.
A major part of the five year campaign is to inform parents, teachers and athletic directors about the importance of supporting physical activity.
Exercise is not only important to burn calories but to encourage social interaction among students participating in sports, VERB advocates.
Parents can help by being physically active role models and planning family events and vacations which involve physical activity, VERB material states.
The campaign also spells out that children who lead active lifestyles are likely to remain active as adults and pass on their own healthy lifestyles to their own children.
"There are things that compromise our quality of life based on how we live," Parker summed up. "For some there is no connection to exercise and longevity of life."
Barbie Morse Burnette may be reached by telephone at 940-4212 or via e-mail at barbie@wdnweb.com.