Across the country, childhood obesity is a growing epidemic in both rural towns and inner cities. The reasons are vast and difficult to pinpoint: is it diet? Is it lack of exercise? What about obsession with TV and video games? The list goes on with evidence to support each reason. While the cause is still up in the air, so is how to fix it.
The Massachusetts program Mass In Motion is promoting a “statewide blueprint” aimed at public schools to help combat this growing issue. Our Old Rochester school district chose to adopt this program, and it means a few different things for our school. The cafeteria will now serve food with higher nutritional standards (especially a la carte items) according to a newsletter sent out to parents at the start of school. School meals will be under a certain calorie limit as well.
In addition to school meals, there are also regulations on classroom snacking. Students are not allowed to bring in food to share, and teachers are only allowed if it is below 200 calories. This halts in-class celebrations, banquets and rewards for elementary, middle and secondary schools.
For elementary schools, this means no cupcakes in school on birthdays or things of the like. For the junior high and high school, this means no celebrating a holiday in the foreign language wing with food of that ethnicity and no banquets as a learning tool in English classes.
For many teachers, this new rule does not apply to them, and therefore are indifferent to its initiation. For many of the teachers in the foreign language and English departments, the consensus is that it is a loss of a beneficial teaching tool. For the rest, they see it as advantageous in the construction of good eating habits.
For health teacher Michael Jenkins, the regulations mean more much than a reduction in school-time snacking. From a community perspective, his belief in the new rules is slim.
“Do I think it will make a difference in the health of students? In our community: no. State-wide it will help. In some communities it will help more than it will in ours. Considering the demographics of the population of our district, many students not only have the means and opportunity to eat a variety of foods, but also have parents or guardians that are invested, whereas some of the more urban or underprivileged districts may not have the same means,” Jenkins said.
He is also a firm believer in the many different factors that play into the issue. Naming off a list of plausible causes for obesity brings up a whole other debate. Is it the cost of healthy foods? As he says, “It’s hard to eat well. Economically, it’s not buyable. It’s just not cheap.”
Is it a lack of education about the eating healthy? Is it lack of interest to eat healthy? Are there just too many other choices? So continues the list of possible causes.
English teacher Bertrand Allain expressed relief in taking away the guesswork of what students could have food allergies, but similar to Jenkins, agrees that there are some opportunities where bringing in food can be a good thing.
“I’ve never been a big fan of food being used as a reward system in classrooms, however I am upset to see some really great learning experiences in the school be disrupted by the lessons. If used well as a carefully crafted lesson, it can help bring enjoyment and a sense of celebration to learning,” he said.
On the influence of the regulations, Allain feels much like Jenkins and most other teachers who spoke with me but chose against being named: he doesn’t see it having much effect.
“I understand the argument that the school might have a responsibility to model responsible eating habits in students; at the same time, I find it pretty unlikely that these new regulations are going to make a strong impact on the health of many students,” Allain said.
By Jess Correia