Recent studies published by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) have provided a new statistical insight into the growing number of American children and early adolescents who are overweight or obese. To date, the NCES has conducted two studies as part of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS).
The U.S. Department of Education provided the funds for the ECLS to observe children in the early stages of childhood and adolescence in order to gather data regarding “child development, school readiness and early school experiences.” The ECLS began with the kindergarten class of 1998-1999 and checked in with almost 6,000 students in their first, third, fifth and eighth grade years. According to the study, about 28 percent of the children were overweight, while the number of obese children fell at approximately 12 percent.
The data collected from the ECLS can be compared to previous studies conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). When compared to data collected in the 1970s and 1980s, the new research demonstrates a 180 percent increase in overweight children and a 140 percent increase in youth obesity.
In 2010, the Trust for America’s Health Organization published a report stating that Pennsylvania is the 17th most obese state in the nation. The state is consistently taking steps to prevent and to combat the issue of childhood obesity. In 2010, the Pennsylvania Coordinating Council for Child Health, Nutrition and Physical Education Council determined that the number of overweight and obese children in our state is actually decreasing, despite the national trend. These findings can be found in the 2010 Pennsylvania Child Wellness Plan. The Lancaster General Research Institute (LGRI) has compiled data by county that also demonstrates that, considering public school students from kindergarten to grade 12, Lancaster County is among the 17 lowest in number of overweight and obese students in Pennsylvania. This takes into account all 67 counties in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Students here at Elizabethtown College may notice that local school students seem to be staying fairly healthy. First-year chemistry education major Bethany Otwell stated, “I can’t say I’ve really seen any obese or overweight children at all.” Otwell has spent time in field placement observations at Elizabethtown High School, Elizabethtown Middle School and Elizabethtown Community Nursery School at the Elizabethtown Church of the Brethren.
Her observations suggest that the growing population of obese and overweight children seems to be a less-noticeable occurrence in Elizabethtown than in other places nationwide.
“It definitely seems to be less of a problem than in my old high school,” Otwell said. “The children [at the Elizabethtown nursery school] are very active during recess,” Otwell added.
The LGRI determined 17 of the least obese and overweight counties also included nearby Dauphin County. According to Hershey Elementary School nurse Page Kozak, BSN, CSN, the Dauphin County, Pa. school just finished assembling its data to assess the number of obese and overweight students. Kozak estimated that out of the 1,300 students, “[they] probably have about 10 percent in each group [both the overweight and obese groups.]” Hershey Elementary is currently taking measures to decrease, prevent and educate families about unhealthy behaviors that may lead to obesity and being overweight. The school includes two days of physical education per six-day cycle, and offers their students a daily walking program. Kozak said in reference to the walking program, “It’s great to get them active, and it’s a great way to make them feel like they are a part of the effort.”
In July of this year, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett proposed a new budget which cut the state funding for public K-12 schools by $810 million. Given the shrinking financial resources to public schools, cost-effective ways to attempt to solve the overweight and obesity problem are becoming the most economically viable means. The exercise program at Hershey Elementary uses existing recess staff, and does not require additional equipment.
When discussing the governmental cooperation in the aid of U.S. public schools, Kozak remarked, “I think it behooves the government to get involved … but I think that [what is done with the limited funding] is incumbent upon the district.” Kozak also noted that, although Hershey Elementary’s school lunch program has become more health-conscious, she is “underwhelmed” by the food that the U.S. Department of Agriculture currently provides to the school. Ultimately, Kozak believes that the nature of the situation also calls for the cooperation of families in the improvement of the students’ healthful choices.