The childhood obesity epidemic will lessen only when good health and nutrition are seen as keys to helping children succeed in school rather than as something that takes away from learning time.
John Skretta, a health advocate who spoke Monday at the Coordinated School Health Symposium in Lexington, punctuated his point by having those in a packed ballroom stand up and do a couple of lunges. The goal was to get their blood flowing and to prove that a little exercise doesn't have to take a lot of time and can improve focus.
"I know I lost some of you after the second slide," he said. "Now I hope I can get some of you back.
The two-day conference at the Marriott Griffin Gate Resort & Spa is a chance to show how community and school health advocates can work together to improve students' health and learning environments. Kentucky is one of 23 states receiving money from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for those programs, said Jamie Sparks, director of the Kentucky Coordinated School Health project.
As superintendent of Norris School District in Firth, Neb., Skretta has been steering his schools toward a healthier lifestyle since 2007, and the efforts have gained national attention.
What works — giving kids more access to healthier foods and promoting exercise — is not a new formula, he said. Finding ways to make it work and stay the course when the inevitable challenges appear are the challenges.
As an example, Skretta talked about tuna salad. Made with low-fat mayonnaise and some pickles, it is a good way to meet the goal of increasing fish options and reducing fried items, he said.
But it took five months to get tuna salad on the serving line in his district, he said. Food service managers thought kids wouldn't try it. Finally, he said, the district's head of nutrition made it up herself. The kids liked it.
"If you make it," he said "they will eat it."
Another example of a simple idea catching on, he said, is that kids in his elementary schools take two 10-minute walks a day. When the practice became widespread, test scores improved.
The overall goal has to be to teach kids how to make good choices that will carry them through the rest of their lives, said Sparks.
As a classroom teacher educating students about health and nutrition, he promised kids, sometimes to the chagrin of other teachers, that he was the only teacher in the building who would teach them something they would use everyday for the rest of their lives. Everybody, he said, makes choices about what they eat and how much they'll move each day.
Skretta, who has a physique that comes with running marathons but admits to Googling the location of Dunkin' Donuts when he is visiting a new city, said school staff need to model healthy habits. In his district, teachers are encouraged not to eat or drink things with limited nutritional value in front of students. He'd like to see that suggestion become a rule.
Only about 16 percent of Kentucky's schools offer a coordinated school health plan, Sparks said. But all of the pieces for creating one exist in most schools, including physical activity classes, health education and access to counseling and social service resources.
And, he said, it's time to act: "If schools don't take the lead on this, who will?"