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White House Task Force Seeks to End Childhood Obesity

By Cynthia McCabe

With 30 percent of the nation’s children overweight or obese -- and disproportionately so in poor and minority communities -- NEA members believe that all children need access to healthy food and opportunities for sufficient physical activity. So it was with pleasure on Tuesday at the White House that they heard first lady Michelle Obama issue this health directive: Let's move.

The first lady -- who has championed healthy living since coming to Washington -- announced President Obama's creation of a task force on childhood obesity with the goal of eradicating the problem within a generation, as well as a companion campaign called "Let's Move." The Let's Move inititative calls for better access to healthy foods for families, and for those foods to be more affordable.

To that end, Michelle Obama called for major school food suppliers and vending machine companies to reduce sugar and fat content, the planting of vegetable gardens at schools, and increased physical activity in and out of school. She touted districts in which school food service workers partner with administrators to offer healthy food.

While changes in the school environment have contributed to childhood obesity over the decades, schools alone cannot solve it. Conversely, if school environments and practices do not change, then the problem will not be solved. The NEA is committed to supporting the first lady in her efforts. As the largest union of school employees in the United States, NEA has been working to address this issue for many years.

NEA and the NEA Health Information Network (HIN) were founding members of the partners group that convened the 2002 Healthy Schools Summit to put into action the schools portion of Surgeon General’s Call to Action on Overweight and Obesity. They joined with leading national organizations such as Action for Healthy Kids and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation to support grassroots changes in school policies and practices, and to build community support for these changes. NEA HIN partners with the private sector including the National Dairy Council to promote programs that can help schools create healthier environments. It continues to educate and inform NEA members through articles, resources, and training. 

Additionally, NEA is working to support reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act and to increase the reimbursement rate for school meal programs.

The White House "will not be alone in this fight," NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said. "The commitment of a multitude of public and private organizations to this effort demonstrates the concern our nation has for the health and well-being of our children. NEA is honored to offer our resources and services in this work. The many thousands of public school employees who work daily in the nation’s public school cafeterias will particularly welcome and support the initiative."

The link between good health, particularly physical activity and nutrition, and educational success is definitive. Healthy children learn better, and schools seeking to do everything they can to close the achievement gap must address these basic needs. NEA members in all job categories play leading roles in driving the changes that need to happen in schools and in the community to promote good nutrition and physical activity. 

The Association's 505,000 Education Support Professional (ESP) members work in a range of jobs including food service, paraeducators, custodians, health rooms, and transportation that all play a role in what happens day to day in a school. Food service workers need training and support to serve healthier, appealing food. Paraeducators can promote physical activity through recess, in-classroom, and before- and after-school activities. Custodians and food service staff can work together to promote and implement healthy school breakfast programs for all children. Classroom teachers and specialty teachers, including health and physical education, play important roles in teaching students the skills needed for a lifetime of healthy behaviors. Physical education programs that prepare students for a lifetime of physical activity are critical to addressing this problem.

There are about 278,000 food service personnel working in the nation’s K-12 schools, representing 13 percent of education support professionals across the nation.



Check out the Let's Move! campaign

Read the full presidential memorandum establishing the childhood obesity task force

Read more about the NEA Health Information Network