Childhood obesity is declining in certain cities in the U. S., but the condition is still prevalent in Chicago, according to statistics released at the end of February by the Chicago Department of Public Health.
And it's double the statewide rate of obesity in kids and adolescents.
One in every four students in kindergarten, sixth and ninth grades in the city’s public school system is obese, reports a newly released study by the health department and Chicago Public Schools. The obesity rate for all of Illinois in 2011 was only 12 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For Chicago, the kids who are either overweight or obese add up to a startling 36.5 percent of kindergartners, 48.6 percent of sixth graders and 44.7 percent of ninth graders.
The study accompanies an action plan, the Healthy Chicago Public Schools Agenda for Student Health and Wellness, also released jointly by CPS and the health department.
The action plan addresses multiple student health issues such as obesity, tobacco use and HIV prevention. The plan calls for obesity prevention through actions such as eliminating the use of food or fitness opportunities as rewards or punishments and implementing a standardized curriculum for physical education.
Part of the strategy focuses on nutrition. Goals include guaranteeing nutritious breakfast and lunches through continued participation in National School Lunch and Breakfast programs, developing the necessary regulation for schools to be certified to use garden-to-cafeteria foods and limiting the access to unhealthy foods on campus and within a one-block radius of 25 schools with obesity rates or 25 percent or higher.
“As a school we are making healthier food choices,” said Ivan Zayas, the Health and Wellness Champion at Lyman Trumbull Elementary School in North Chicago. “We don’t enforce the change, but we set examples for the kids to follow it.”
The school, he said, has taken a lot of steps against obesity in the last year. From meal plans to emphasis on physical activity, the school is doing a lot to inspire the kids to lead a healthy lifestyle.
“I asked my 8th grade students to have an activity log, where they record everything from the food they eat, to the time when they ate it and also the amount of physical activity they did that day,” Zayas said. “At the end of the week, when they see the log, they will be able to answer for themselves if they have been active enough to burn all the calories, or whether they lead a balanced healthy lifestyle.”
Zayas said that with the action plan and anti-obesity campaign in full swing, he is confident that things are moving in the right direction.
According to spokesperson Robyn Ziegler, CPS is now standardizing and making official changes that have already been made in many schools. Though they cannot control what students eat, she said, they can control what is served in the lunchroom.
In addition to the points of the action plan, CPS is trying to replace sodas in vending machines with juice, also paying attention to the serving size, Ziegler said. The school district is trying to suggest healthier alternatives to the cupcakes students bring in to class on their birthday.
Physical activity is also being addressed. CPS is trying to ensure that all schools have recess and that physical education requirements cannot be waived, Ziegler said.
The outlined goals include developing and implementing a standardized curriculum for physical education and encouraging schools to provide at least 45 minutes of physical education a week to their students.
According to the action plan, the integration of physical activity will be assessed and monitored by reports on the annual school wellness survey.
Though not affected by the regulations of CPS, Chicago private schools are also taking action to promote the health of their students.
The Latin School on Chicago’s Northside emphasizes nutrition in the foods that are served on campus.
“Probably the major shift was from packaged, pre-prepared foods to all from scratch, made on-site,” said Steven Obendorf, the executive chef of the Latin School, regarding a change adopted three years ago. “The foods we really produce are whole foods," for a more well-rounded and balanced menu.
The school grows some of its own herbs and uses jams, pickles, sauerkraut and other items made from scratch at the school, he said. This strategy eliminates the chemicals, preservatives and other artificial components from the packaging process.
“Getting students really actively involved and interested in how food is produced is also part of our charge,” Obendorf said. “I was a picky eater as a child and one thing that helped me was understanding what was in a dish.”
Fitness is also promoted at the school, with an emphasis on teaching students skills that they can use to stay healthy throughout their life.
“The philosophy for the physical education department is to give the kids as many skills and as much exposure to all kinds of physical acts so when they leave here they’ll feel comfortable,” said Pam McCarthy, chair of physical education.
If the students are not comfortable with an activity, they are unlikely to try it later in life, McCarthy said.
“I think they need to be taught some basic skills,” she said. “Physical education needs to be an important part of a school day.”
Saint Ignatius Prep School on Chicago's West Side also promotes the idea schools play a role in educating students about healthy habits.
In addition to two years of mandatory physical education, the PE course for the school’s freshmen contains a health class.
“We try to get it to them right away,” said Bob Kriz, the Total Wellness Chairman at the school.
To promote wellness at the school, Saint Ignatius opens the gym, weight room and aerobic rooms during school hours so that students can use them to get in a workout during a free period. According to Kriz, there are a good number of students that take advantage of those opportunities.
And promoting wellness has its benefits in the classroom as well.
“One of the things that we’ve found out is that being active helps them in class too,” Kriz said.
The CPS plan's physical fitness goals reach beyond school hours with goals to provide 150,000 students with more opportunities for activities through collaboration with the Chicago Park District. Improving safety to increase the number of students who are able to safely bike or walk to and from school each day is another goal.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called for the city to add 50 additional miles of bike lanes and provide a park within a seven-minute walk for every child in Chicago at a recent event. He hosted Michelle Obama as she came to Chicago in February to promote her fitness strategies to fight childhood obesity.
“I know that with each passing year it feels like it’s just getting harder to find the time and the money and the will to help our kids be active. But just because it’s harder doesn’t mean we should stop trying,” the First Lady said during her visit. “It means we should try harder. It means that all of us, not just educators, but businesses and non-profits and ordinary citizens, we all need to dig a little deeper, start getting even more creative.”
“Good health is essential for good learning, and Chicago is leading the nation with comprehensive strategies to improve the health and wellness of all residents,” he reiterated in a press release. “Our goal is to ensure every student has the knowledge, tools and access necessary for good health. For the first time in decades, students are guaranteed recess with our full school day, and the Healthy CPS Action Plan builds on this and additional efforts to ensure students have healthy options and learn healthy habits that will help them succeed for years to come.”
Cautious optimism has been expressed by some regarding the direction the city is headed in the fight against childhood obesity.
“As long as that seven-minute walk is a safe one, it’s going to be phenomenally transformative for the children of Chicago,” said Kris Smart, executive director of Girls on the Run - Chicago. “It’s critically important for kids in Chicago to have an opportunity to be physically active… A lot of children are unable to play in their own neighborhood.”
Girls on the Run is an example of another way that people are trying to get kids active: afterschool programs. This particular program integrates physical activities into lessons about healthy living, promoting both physical and emotional health for girls in 3rd through 8th grade.
The afterschool program is currently available at about 200 schools and reaches around 6,800 girls across six counties. But in ten years they hope to be positively impacting the physical and emotional health of 50,000 girls a year, said Smart.
“It’s about health and lifestyle,” Smart said. “In Chicago there’s a need for programs like this.”
The stakes are high and are rising. In a 2004 speech, then Surgeon General Richard Carmona said that because of “increasing rates of obesity, unhealthy eating habits, and physical inactivity,” the U.S. might see the first generations of children with lower life expectancies than their parents.