THE proportion of children in America who are overweight has tripled over the past 20 years and now exceeds 17%, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The health problems that this causes include hypertension and type-2 diabetes, formerly known only among the nation’s overweight adult population. A group sponsored by the National Institute on Ageing has warned that this may be the first generation ever to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.
All the while, the proportion of children who take part in daily exercise at high school has dropped from 42% in 1991 to only 28% in 2004, according to the CDC. Snacking has greatly increased; the Government Accountability Office found in 2003 that 99% of America’s high schools now sell snacks and other food as well as providing lunches.
In an attempt to get the problem tackled at local level, Congress in 2004 passed an act directing school districts that get money from the national school-lunch programme to create “wellness” policies by the start of the 2006-07 school year. The districts were told to set standards for nutrition, physical activity and education about good food, then make sure that schools actually implement them.
One year after the deadline, the results are haphazard. School districts’ plans range from a few paragraphs long to more than 25 pages. Some states, like Texas and Arkansas, have pre-emptively set standards for school districts under their jurisdiction, forcing schools to ban fizzy drinks and junk food while increasing the amount of exercise the pupils take. Others offer guidelines rather than mandates, with no repercussions for schools that don’t comply. And in some areas, schools are being eased into change very slowly. Oregon’s legislature passed a bill in June that gives its schools ten years to meet its new physical-education requirements.