Results from the 2011-12 Australian Health Survey show that one quarter of children aged two–17 are overweight or obese, with 18 per cent being overweight and seven per cent obese.
While parents and carers are largely responsible for laying the foundations of lifelong good health in their children, schools also have a unique opportunity to tackle obesity in childhood.
According to the School of Public Health at Harvard University, there are several things schools can do to address childhood obesity amongst students.
‘Serving healthy choices in the lunch room, limiting availability and marketing of unhealthful foods and sugary drinks, and making water available to students throughout the day are some of the ways that schools can help prevent obesity,' the report says.
The authors acknowledge that in implementing any of these changes, there are several obstacles that schools may face.
‘Among the obstacles: budgeting for the higher costs of purchasing and preparing more healthful foods; coaxing children to accept the more healthful options; and addressing the multitude of ways that unhealthful foods and drinks are sold or served outside of school meals, from classroom birthday parties to school-wide bake sales and sporting events,' the report says.
Obesity prevention policies and practices in Australian schools
In Australia, a variety of school obesity prevention initiatives have been implemented, including mandatory healthy school canteen guidelines, professional development programmes for teachers, and curriculum-based programmes.
The report Adoption of obesity prevention policies and practices by Australian primary schools: 2006 to 2013, published in 2015, looked at the extent to which schools have adopted obesity prevention policies and practices. Between 2006 and 2013, a representative randomly selected cohort of primary schools in New South Wales, Australia, participated in these interviews.
The study asked principals to report (yes/no/don't know) to whether their school had the following policies or practices in place:
- Incorporation of teaching healthy eating in key learning areas other than physical education;
- Teaching of physical activity in key learning areas other than physical education;
- Teaching of fundamental movement skills in the physical education program;
- Written healthy eating and nutrition policy;
- Written physical activity plan or policy;
- Existence of vegetable and fruit breaks in class;
- Existence of school playground markings for games and availability of sports equipment for student use;
- School provision in past 12 months of information to parents/carers about healthy eating; and,
- School provision in the past 12 months of information to parents/carers about physical activity.
It found the proportion of schools adopting at least 80 per cent of all nine practices (six or more) increased from 31.7 per cent in 2006 to 50.5 per cent in 2013.
The authors of this study note that the findings suggest that although government policies and investment have improved the healthy eating environments of schools, additional or different dissemination strategies may be required to facilitate greater adoption of policies.
What are other school systems doing to tackle the issue?
The city of Amsterdam has the highest rate of obesity in the Netherlands, with a fifth of its children overweight. A report in The Guardian says that as a result, the city introduced a wide-reaching programme that hits several targets at the same time – from promoting tap water to refusing event sponsorship from fast food outlets.
Here are some of the policies that are enforced in schools in Amsterdam:
- A ban on bringing juice to focus schools and investment in more water fountains around the city;
- Cooking classes to teach healthy varieties of ethnic dishes: pizzas with a broccoli base, kebabs with lean chicken instead of pork, honey and dates substituted for sugar;
- City refusal to sponsor any event joint-funded by a fast food company;
- Parents encouraged to put small children on bikes without pedals instead of wheeling them in buggies;
- Focus on the first 1000 days of a child's life, including counselling for pregnant women and mothers;
- Families encouraged to eat dinner together; and
- Sports centre membership and activities subsidised for low-income families. (Boseley, 2017).
These changes resulted in the number of overweight and obese children in Amsterdam dropping by 12 per cent between 2012 and 2015.
Boseley, S. (2017). Amsterdam's solution to the obesity crisis: no fruit juice and enough sleep. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/apr/14/amsterdam-solution-obesity-crisis-no-fruit-juice-enough-sleep?CMP=share_btn_link
Harvard University School of Public Health. (2017). School Obesity Prevention Recommendations: Complete List. Retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/obesity-prevention/schools/school-obesity-prevention-recommendations-read-and-print/
N. Nathan, L. Wolfenden, C. M. Williams, S. L. Yoong, C. Lecathelinais, A. C. Bell, R. Wyse, R. Sutherland, J. Wiggers; Adoption of obesity prevention policies and practices by Australian primary schools: 2006 to 2013. Health Educ Res 2015; 30 (2): 262-271. doi: 10.1093/her/cyu068
Who is overweight? (AIHW). (2017). Aihw.gov.au. Retrieved 9 June 2017, from http://www.aihw.gov.au/who-is-overweight/#children
Consider the nine practices listed above: answer (yes/no/don’t know) to whether your school has these policies or practices in place.
Does your school have a plan or policy in place to address childhood obesity? How is this plan communicated with staff? What about parents?