Students at Risk: Nutrition, Obesity and Public Schools

ABOUT A DECADE AGO, Rogan Kersh hosted a panel discussion of obesity, and only four people showed up in the audience.

But on October 13, 2009, about 140 people attended as Kersh, now a professor and an associate dean at NYU Wagner, moderated a lively exchange on what has now become an undeniable epidemic in this country.

Among the panelists was Nancy Huehnergarth, a parent who became the director of New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance after she found that the junk food her children were exposed to in their school cafeteria was turning them off to the more healthful lunches she packed for them. Jorge Collazo, the head chef at the New York City Department of Education — who faces the unique challenge of feeding 860,000 students a day on a budget of 90 cents per person — weighed in on the challenges of combating obesity, as did Roger Turgeon, the principal of the Food and Finance High School in Manhattan, and Kathryn Henderson, director of School and Community Initiatives at Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

Henderson opened up the dialogue with a clear statement of the problem: 25% of students in New York City primary and secondary schools are obese, even more are at the very least overweight, and as a society we spend billions of dollars each year treating obesity-related ailments.

Turegeon, meanwhile, noted that he is seeing more and more students coming to his high school struggling with obesity and type 2 diabetes.

An additional problem, Henderson later said, is the 90 percent failure rate in treating obesity among adults and the only slightly better success rate with children. This drove the point home that obesity prevention is a critical policy issue, and not easily resolved.  

So the panelist took to offering a variety of opinions on some of the causes. Huehnergarth and Henderson in particular pointed to the prevalence of fast-food restaurants such as Taco Bell and  McDonalds within schools, saying their fare competes with more healthful school lunch options available to children.  Henderson scoffed at the current ban on minimally nutritious food in city schools, saying the ban covers just six items: seltzer, jelly beans, gum, cotton candy and some other seldom-seen snacks.

Turgeon highlighted the temptations that exist just beyond the school walls, in  the bodegas and fast food chains that students pass on their way to school.

Collazo rounded out the conversation by bringing attention to the cultural and social issues that are involved in convincing students to eat a balanced diet. After all, even those of us who are now far removed from high school can imagine that it would hardly be considered cool for a teenage boy to chow down on fresh food plucked from the salad bar.

The challenges are broader, too. The panelists said that many low income neighborhoods where obesity is most profound have limited access to fresh food markets, and families in any area are sometimes reluctant to follow nutritional guidelines that fly in the face of traditional home cooking.

Kersh challenged the panelists to identify policy solutions at the school level, local level, and federal level As they did, the complexities revealed themselves. Turgeon offered that increased nutrition education could help, but Huehnergarth countered that kids have the nutritional knowledge but will invariably consume junk food if it is right in front of them. Henderson advocated a ban on schoolhouse fast foods, but Jorge said that many schools depend on the revenue derived from those concessionaires in order to fund academic and extracurricular programs. The experts agreed, though, that the idea of serving breakfast in the classroom may improve eating habits, student concentration and attendance, though it sometimes draws resistance from custodians.

Across the board, there was support for re-authorization of the national Child Nutrition Act, which would require schools to have a wellness policy that outlined nutrition standards for all foods sold on school grounds. One audience member asked, however, Do we really want the government telling us what we are allowed to eat?

The NYU Wagner event was co-sponsored by the Wagner Education Policy Studies Association (WESPA) and the Wagner Health Network.