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Action Research Project: Remedies for the Obesity Epidemic in America's Schools

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Dec 28, 2016 | #1
America's children are entrenched in a nationwide health crisis. In a sincere effort to both research as well as propose feasible solutions to the devastating plague of American, childhood obesity, the following project asserts that to overlook the role schools play in children's health would be the grossest manifestation of political ignorance. In solving this urgent problem, effective solutions must involve students, parents, school staff, and school administrators in conjunction with other policy makers and the greater, surrounding community.

Phase I: Action Research Question

Student ObesityWhile the atrocious levels of fitness and nutrition among America's youth is certainly well disclosed, the most formidable obstacle to solving this problem is the failure to recognize how inextricably bound schools are to the problem of childhood obesity. In her text simply but appropriately entitled Our Overweight Children, author Sharron Dalton writes that "the fact is that one out of three children in the United States is either overweight or at serious risk of becoming so. The number of overweight children ages six to nineteen has tripled within three decades; the rate of overweight preschool children is nearly as great. The accelerating rate indicates that the current generation of children will grow into the most obese generation of adults in history" (p. 2). More pressingly, if these trends continue, future generations of children will be even less healthy than today's youth.

An integral component of this problem, however, is the lack of consideration for children's academic environment as a key contributor to their poor health. While some experts accuse human evolution and growth hormones of catalyzing the obesity epidemic, the true villains within this unfortunate tale are fast food, soft drinks, and lack of exercise (Dalton). Though these factors are not new to the sociocultural environment of America's children, their prevalence is increasing exponentially in parallel with children's average weight.

In the wake of the fast food restaurant and the ever-increasing emphasis on technology, both of which foster sedentary lifestyles and grossly inadequate levels of nutrition, the health of Americans, young and old, has dramatically tanked. Dalton writes that "federal surveys that rate the quality of children's food consumption give the typical diets of today's children, ages two to eighteen, scores in the 60s (100 being the best possible). Fifty years ago, children's diet scores were in the 80s." Ultimately, the causes for this detrimental decline are complex, but it remains that most children are not naturally obese; thus environmental factors must be addressed in order to save both current as well as future generations from suffering physically and psychologically from poor health.

Children spend an average of 180 days per year, and approximately eight hours a day, in school; thus, schools are the most prevalent environment in which children live aside from their homes. The key ways in which schools contribute to the obesity epidemic are as follows:

- Vending Machines
- Cafeteria Food
- Lack of Opportunities for Physical Exercise

Belying these problems are relationships with fast food, soft drink, and snack food corporations. In her article entitled "Childhood Obesity Problems and Solutions" author Tonja Van Staveren explains how schools are effectively compromising student health in order to fund their facilities:

It is easy to see why school administrators find lucrative contacts with soda companies appealing, and as a result, this practice is continuing to spread, despite a growing movement to get soda out of schools. For example, New York City has signed a $166 million, five-year deal with Snapple (makers of sweetened beverages), with part of the deal providing Snapple exclusive vending machine rights in the city's 1,200 schools. Snapple will pay the schools at least $8 million a year for five years. If we hope to reverse the troubling practice of exclusive pouring-rights contacts, concerned citizens--teachers, parents, administrators, health advocates, and even students--must publicly expose these deals and persuade the community to take strong action opposing these deals. The fear that vending machine sales will drop if junk food and sodas are replaced by healthier options has been a deterrent for many schools.

There is, however, significant evidence that vending machines and healthy cafeteria food neither pose an increase in food costs nor a decrease in student food consumption.

With regard to physical activity, or rather the lack of physical activity, schools are again a primary culprit. Recess and physical education (P.E.) have been relinquished in favor of test preparation. The No Child Left Behind Act bound school funding so completely to student performance on tests that physical activity was removed even from elementary schools, despite pedagogical evidence that such activities are necessary for children (Dalton).

While the role of schools in poor student health is undeniable, viable solutions exist. Dalton writes that "schools ready to take action and looking for a complete program do not need to reinvent the wheel" (p. 210). For this Action Research Project, the most salient question is as follows: How can schools feasibly remedy the health of their students successfully and consistently by addressing the complementary areas of fitness and nutrition?

Phase II: Analyze the Need

The needs assessment will be conducted via a comprehensive survey of major stakeholders; this includes students, parents, staff, and administrators. The surveys will be customized for each of the four, aforementioned groups. Student surveys will seek to assess their current nutrition and exercise practices and compare them with federal guidelines in order to glean which areas are the most problematic. Questions will include: How many fruits and vegetables a day do you eat per day? How often do you use the school vending machines? How many times per week do you exercise for at least 30 minutes? How many times per week do you eat fast food? Parent and staff surveys will seek to determine how receptive they are to a total overhaul of their children's/students' health in terms of eating and physical activity. Because administrators will act as the ultimate facilitators of school-based solutions, survey questions for these stakeholders will determine how best to fund the program and communicate the program to students, parents, and staff.

Phase III: Design an Action Plan

The proposed remedy to this problem is a total overhaul of school-based food consumption, school-based physical activity, and, most saliently, the perceptions of health for all involved stakeholders. In anticipating the primary obstacles to the program as stemming from staff and familial willingness to participate, the program will begin by thoroughly informing all stakeholders regarding the urgency for addressing this problem. The following is a simplified outline of the Fit Schools Initiative (FSI):

Month I Goal: Inform Staff and Parents of FSI

Objectives: Designate program leaders (two per school), set up website, conduct informational meeting for staff, send home comprehensive packet to parents which includes one permission slip per student to attend on-site, health seminars.

Month II Goal: Train Staff and Parents for FSI, Inform Students, Cultivate Partnerships with Local Farmers and Healthy Vending Companies

Objectives: Conduct, two, mandatory, paid, Saturday trainings for all teachers and staff (Topics will include integration of physical activity into the classroom, changes to cafeteria menus, and general health issues such as the importance of cardiovascular activity), Direct students to FSI's website and hand out packets regarding the program's components.

Month III Goal: Begin Program

Objectives: P. E. will be mandatory for all elementary, middle, and high school students, Recess will be mandatory for all elementary school students, Vending machines will be restocked with low-sodium, low sugar option, All soft drinks will be replaced with water and milk, Cafeterias will offer fresh foods, including fruits and vegetables as provided by local farmers, with low fat, low sodium, and low sugar content, Participating parents will track their fast-food intake as well as their meals eaten together as a family. Students will maintain a Health Journal that tracks nutrition and physical activity in conjunction with computer, television, and video game use.

Month IV and Beyond: Reassess

Objectives: Student Health Journals and Parent Health Journals will be evaluated in conjunction with staff and administrator perceptions of FSI's efficacy. Students physical activity and nutrition will be reevaluated via the same survey questions used for the Needs Assessment.

Phase IV: Implementing an Action Plan

In garnering support for FSI's implementation, all stakeholders will need to be fully informed as well as involved lest the program is likely to fail. In her article entitled "Assessing the Feasibility of a Multi-Program School-Based Intervention to Promote Physical Activity and Healthful Eating in Middle Schools Prior to Wide-Scale Implementation", author Mary Greaney writes that creating and sustaining community networks is highly integral to program success. In essence, if the schools are not supported by the surrounding community, FSI will not work; whole, locally grown foods need to be provided and funds lost by the corporate donations from fast-food and soft drink companies will need to be replaced from other, preferably more health-minded sources.

Phase V: Evaluation and Revisions to the Action Plan

In the fourth month of the program's implementation, which is only one month after FSI has been practically involving the students, the program will be thoroughly evaluated and assessed for efficacy. The journals of both students as well as parents will be reviewed via a random sample and interviews with staff and administrators will define the program's strengths and weaknesses. In revising the program, greater community involvement will be garnered by presenting the program's established success.

Ideally, local health clubs would offer discounts to families who participate in FSI and local restaurants may offer an FSI-friendly menu for participating families that like to eat outside of their home but want a healthy option to a fast-food restaurant. Alternatively, students could supplement their physical activity via a school-sponsored walking club and incentive programs could be established for students who turn off their televisions and video games for one week.

Summary and Conclusions

The anticipated results of this program are resoundingly positive. By ensuring parent and community involvement, FSI is likely to succeed in increasing the general health and decreasing the weight of local students. Van Staveren writes in her aforementioned article that "for nine to ten months of the year, children attend school five out of every seven days, for six to eight hours per day. The school cafeteria provides food choices, the physical education program determines the time allocated to physical activity, and the school curriculum controls opportunities to learn about the relationship between personal behaviors and health" (p. 44). By amending the levels of nutrition and physical activity that students experience during their school day, FSI aims to cultivate healthful attitudes that will resonate throughout students' lives.

Though the implications of FSI for the work environment are substantial, as teachers will be asked to participate in additional trainings as well as amend their curricula to include physical movement and accommodate physical education classes, resistance to FSI's implementation can be surmounted by conveying that the cost of not implementing the program is the health of students. Administrators will need to be mindful of perceptions of FSI and act to challenge, mediate, and remedy any sources of negative feedback. The future of FSI lies in inextricably binding the program to the community through business partnerships, enrolling as many students as possible, and spreading the program to the national level.

Appendix: Literature Review

Article I

Greaney, M., Hardwick, C. K., Mezgebu, S., Lindsay, A. C., Roover, M. L., & Peterson, K. E. Assessing the Feasibility of a Multi-Program School-Based Intervention to Promote Physical Activity and Healthful Eating in Middle Schools Prior to Wide-Scale Implementation. American Journal of Health Education, 38(5), 250+.

In fervent recognition that schools are inextricably bound to the health of America's children, this article reflects on a study that investigated probable obstacles to the imposition of health initiatives within public schools. The methods for this study were in-depth interviews of administrators, program coordinators, and staff members in order to explore perceptions that might inhibit a school-wide fitness program such as the Healthy Choices Collaborative Intervention (HCCI) that boosts the availability of healthy foods in cafeterias in conjunction with general, healthful attitudes for staff and students. The interviews afforded researches with the following conclusions: "Respondents believed sustainability would be facilitated through resources for networking and refreshers on intervention components", and that parents and community leaders would be integral to successful implementation. As a result of the study, regional coordinators were hired to assist schools in implementation of HCCI.

The crux of the article is the assertion that staff perceptions are wholly linked to the efficacy of health program implementation; this informs this action research initiative in that staff perceptions must be considered, and in some cases modified, in order for a successful remedy to be implemented. This particular study could be extended to review staff perceptions via similar methodology after the HCCI's implementation. In general, the study simply concluded that school staff believes that school-based, health initiatives need to be supported both inside as well as outside of the academic environment in order to be effective.

Article II

Judge, S., & Jahns, L. Association of Overweight with Academic Performance and Social and Behavioral Problems: An Update from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. Journal of School Health, 77(10), 672+.

Though there is substantial research regarding the link between child obesity and social struggle, little research has been conducted regarding the relationship between weight and academic success. In an effort to study this relationship, this study assessed the weight of third-grade students in conjunction with standardized test scores. The findings were that there was a "significant association between being overweight and academic achievement. Overweight third grade children scored lower than their non-overweight peers on standardized test" (p. 672). The findings also concluded that overweight girls were more academically impacted by their weight issues than boys, often manifesting depressive symptoms within their school environment. This supports the aforementioned, earlier research that linked obesity with psychological and social issues.

This article informs this action research plan by both supporting the urgent need to remedy student fitness levels as well as linking the academic environment to student health. Additional research might to further this study might surround the solutions, such as self-esteem workshops for girls in conjunction with physical health initiatives. While the research concluded that this link exists, it makes few recommendations for solving the problem. However, it supports future strategies, such as the one described within this action research plan, by inextricably linking student achievement with their health.

Article III

Van Staveren, T., & Dale, D. Childhood Obesity Problems and Solutions: Food Choices and Physical Activity, at School and at Home, Underlie the Childhood-Obesity Problem. What Role Can Schools Play in Finding a Solution?. JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 75(7), 44+.

This article was comprehensive in delineating both the problems as well as the solutions for school-rooted health issues. The authors explain that effective remedies would need to include an overhaul of cafeteria meals in conjunction with physical education; though these are not necessarily innovative proposals, the authors emphasize that parent education is paramount to student success. Citing that "prevention of childhood obesity has to be a joint responsibility--requiring involvement and collaboration between all levels of the government, the community, the media, youth-serving organizations, schools and teachers, health professionals, businesses, child care providers, and parents", the authors recommend immediate, national solutions to the problem of childhood obesity.

Beyond relevant to this action research plan, this article recommends that school-based initiatives include parent education, as children will only behave as their mentors, that is their parents, behave. Additional, related research might include an assessment of parental attitudes toward health in conjunction with the weight of their children. The most salient conclusion of this study is the truly weighted role parents play in the health of their children, and that health initiatives in schools will only be as successful as their level of parental involvement.

Supplemental References

Our Overweight Children: What Parents, Schools, and Communities Can Do to Control the Fatness Epidemic. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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