PUBLICATIONS and TOOLS
- IOM Releases Front-of-Package Labeling Report
- New System Added to NCCOR's Catalogue of Surveillance Systems
- EPA Releases New Voluntary School Siting Guidelines
- Report Slams Makers of Sugary Drinks for Targeting Kids
- Overweight Kids at Greater Risk for High Blood Pressure
- Hidden Drivers of Childhood Obesity Operate Behind the Scenes
- Overweight Teens Don't Seem to Grasp Weight Loss Rules
CHILDHOOD OBESITY NEWS
- School Lunch Proposals Set Off a Dispute
- Schools Face New Challenge: Return of Recess
- In High Schools, a Critical Lens on Food
Oct. 10, 2011, The Washington Post
By Dina ElBoghdady
A federal proposal that would restrict the kinds of foods marketed to children may soon be substantially changed to address the concerns raised by the food and beverage industry, which has aggressively lobbied against the plan for months.
In a statement submitted to a House panel on Oct. 10, a federal regulator deeply involved in developing the voluntary guidelines said the government is taking a "fresh look" at its proposal and rethinking some of its most hotly contested aspects, including how it defines "children." The guidelines, designed to tackle childhood obesity, called on the industry to market to children only those foods and drinks that make a "meaningful contribution" to a healthful diet and to limit sodium, fats and added sugars in products. Under the voluntary plan, foods that don't meet the criteria should not be marketed to children.
But since the plan was unveiled in May, the nation's largest food makers, fast-food chains and media giants have railed against it. The industry, which adopted its own standards in 2006 and updated them recently, said the plan is so strict it would in effect wipe out advertising to kids and teens, eliminate millions of jobs and infringe on commercial speech.
The Federal Trade Commission, which worked with three other agencies on the guidelines and took the lead on the marketing components, is now "contemplating revising them to more narrowly focus on those marketing techniques that our studies suggest are used most extensively to market to children," David Vladeck, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in the statement submitted to Congress in advance of a Oct. 12 hearing on this topic.
For starters, the FTC initially aimed to restrict the marketing to children ages 2 to 17, vastly expanding the industry's self-imposed 2 to 11 age limit. But the FTC concluded "that, with the exception of certain in-school marketing activities, it is not necessary to encompass adolescents ages 12 to 17, within the scope of covered marketing" Vladeck said.
The initial plan — also crafted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration and Agriculture Department — extended beyond television, print and radio marketing to other marketing venues, such as Internet pop-up ads, online sweepstakes, advertising through cellphones, celebrity endorsements, in-school marketing and character licensing.
But the FTC now believes that charitable events, entertainment and sporting events and theme parks should not be covered because they do not specifically target children but rather a much wider audience, Vladeck said. The commission also does not expect to recommend that food companies remove "brand equity characters" from products that don't meet the nutrition guidelines.
"The Commission is making a real effort to avoid pulling in marketing activities that are family-oriented or directed to a more general audience and to limit the revised approach to marketing that more exclusively targets the child only," Vladeck said.
PUBLICATIONS and TOOLS
IOM Releases Front-of-Package Labeling Report
The Institute of Medicine (IOM) released its Phase II report and findings on front-of-package (FOP) labeling. FOP are symbols and icons often used on food packaging to identify healthier products. Although nutrition rating systems and symbols on food packages intend to help consumers make healthy decisions, the wide variety of systems that are on products today often lead consumers to become confused about what they mean instead of giving them the intended healthy dietary guidance. The report, Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols: Promoting Healthier Choices, concludes that it is time for a fundamental shift in strategy, a move away from complex or confusing FOP systems that do not give clear guidance about the healthfulness of a food or beverage and toward one that encourages healthier choices through simplicity, visual clarity and the ability to convey meaning without written information. The report recommends a simple FOP nutrition rating system that shows calories in household measures and points for the healthfulness of the product based on nutrients of most concern, enabling shoppers to instantly recognize healthier products by their number of points and calorie information.
New System Added to NCCOR's Catalogue of Surveillance Systems
NCCOR's Catalogue of Surveillance Systems (CSS) added a new system in October on Health Behaviors in School-Aged Children. The system consists of a survey of the health, health behaviors and their social context, and the well being of school-aged youths in the United States (US) and 42 other countries. The Health Behaviors in School-Aged Children survey is just one of more than 79 surveys and other data sets available in the CSS. The CSS is a free online resource to help researchers and practitioners more easily investigate childhood obesity in America. It describes in detail existing surveillance systems that collect data related to childhood obesity. The CSS allows users to search and select surveys that provide a wealth of data at the national, state and local levels on a range of variables, including school policies and health outcomes, as well as eating and exercise behaviors. Health officials at the city and state level also can find data related to their programs.
Access the Catalogue at www.nccor.org/css
Please visit www.nccor.org for more information about the CSS, a full list of NCCOR-led projects, upcoming events, and childhood obesity research highlights.
EPA Releases New Voluntary School Siting Guidelines
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently issued its School Siting Guidelines. These guidelines will be an important resource to communities across the country as they look to renovate or build schools. For the first time, the guidelines clearly explain how school systems should look at the positive aspects of a school site, such as walkability and proximity to students, parks, libraries and other community assets, as well as environmental hazards. In the guidelines there is strong language about the relationship between walking and bicycling to school, obesity and academic achievement.
Report Slams Makers of Sugary Drinks for Targeting Kids
Oct. 31, 2011, USA Today
By Steven Reinberg
A new report claims that the makers of sugar-laden drinks such as sodas, sports drinks, energy drinks and fruit drinks take direct aim at children, particularly black and Hispanic kids, in their marketing campaigns.
Despite promises to improve their marketing practices, these companies still use tactics such as rewards for buying sugary drinks, community events, cause-related marketing, promotions and product placement in social media, according to researchers at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. The findings were presented on Oct. 31 at the American Public Health Association's annual meeting in Washington, D.C.
"We found that children's exposure to TV ads for full-calorie soda doubled from 2008 to 2010," Jennifer Harris, report author and director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center, said during a morning news conference. "We also found that energy drinks are heavily marketed to children and teens."
Companies are reaching children not only by direct advertising, but through product placement on prime-time TV, the Internet and Facebook, Harris said. Not only do beverage makers target children, but they also make health claims even though their products contain sugar, artificial sweeteners and caffeine, added Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of the Rudd Center. Many parents think sweetened sports drinks and fruit drinks are good for their children, she noted, and "they also believe the nutrient claims about vitamin C and real and natural ingredients, and interpret those as meaning that these products are healthful options."
"One of the things we were surprised to learn is that some of these products marketed to children contain both artificial sweeteners and sugar," she added.
To reach these conclusions, the authors looked at the marketing strategies of 14 companies and almost 600 products.
Highlights of the report include:
- Lots of fruit drinks and energy drinks contain as much sugar and calories as full-calorie sodas.
- Forty percent of kids' fruit drinks contain artificial sweeteners.
- More than half of sugary drinks and energy drinks make nutrient-related claims on their packages. Sixty-four percent say they contain "all-natural" or "real" ingredients.
- Energy drinks are not appropriate for children and teens, but they are heavily marketed to them. In 2010, teens were exposed to 18 percent more TV ads and 46 percent more radio ads for energy drinks than adults. In 2010, teens saw 20 percent more TV ads for energy drinks than they did in 2008.
- Although the industry promised not to market unhealthy drinks to children, exposure to full-calorie soda TV ads doubled from 2008 to 2010.
- Companies target black and Hispanic children and teens. Black children and teens saw up to 90 percent more ads compared with whites. Between 2008 and 2010, Hispanic kids watching Spanish-language TV saw 49 percent more ads for sugary drinks and energy drinks, and Hispanic teens saw 99 percent more ads.
Reacting to the report, Susan K. Neely, president and CEO of the American Beverage Association, said in a statement that "the people at our member companies -- many of whom are parents themselves -- are delivering on their commitment to advertise only water, juice and milk on programming for children under 12."
"In fact, recent research supports that there has been a dramatic change in food and beverage advertising during children's programming, with advertisements for soft drinks decreasing by 96 percent between 2004 and 2010 alone," she said. "This report is another attack by known critics in an ongoing attempt to single out one product as the cause of obesity when both common sense and widely accepted science have shown that the reality is far more complicated."
Samantha Heller, clinical nutrition coordinator at the Center for Cancer Care at Griffin Hospital in Derby, Conn., said that "the Rudd Center study quantifies what most of us already know: that kids are drinking too much sugar. Still, the results are unsettling and disturbing."
Parents need to be educated that sodas, energy drinks and fruit drinks are not healthy for children or teens, Heller said. "They are not healthy for anyone, actually," she added. "The food companies need to devote some resources to not only changing their marketing practices but also to reformulating at least some of their products to make them healthier."
In the meantime, parents need to stop bringing sugar-sweetened beverages into the home, Heller said. "There is no need to give a toddler soda or fruit drinks. They will be perfectly happy with water or low-fat milk or soy milk if that is what they are used to," she said. "And while your teens may complain that there are no more sodas or fruit drinks in the house, they will get used to it."
Because these findings were presented at a medical meeting, the data and conclusions should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Overweight Kids at Greater Risk for High Blood Pressure
Oct. 4, 2011, HealthDay
By Mary Elizabeth Dallas
Overweight or obese children are nearly three times as likely to have high blood pressure as kids who are a normal weight, according to a new study from the American Heart Association.
The increased risk applies to children of all ages, researchers said. Their advice: Parents and doctors should help children lose excess weight now to prevent high blood pressure from affecting them as adults.
In conducting the study, researchers followed 1,111 healthy Indiana school children, whose average age was 10, for 4.5 years. They found that when the children became overweight (having a body mass index, or BMI, at or above the 85th percentile), the amount of fat under their skin and surrounding their major organs, known as adiposity, harmed their health.
The study, published Oct. 3 in the journal Hypertension, revealed when the kids reached the overweight or obese category, the adiposity effect on their blood pressure was more than four times that of normal-weight children.
"Higher blood pressure in childhood sets the stage for high blood pressure in adulthood," said study lead author Wanzhu Tu, a biostatistics professor at Indiana University School of Medicine, in a Heart Association news release. "Targeted interventions are needed for these children. Even small decreases in BMI could yield major health benefits." The researchers found 14 percent of the blood pressure measurements from overweight or obese children were at prehypertensive or hypertensive levels, compared with 5 percent of normal weight children. They also noted that blood levels of a hormone found in fat tissue, called leptin, and heart rate had a similar pattern as blood pressure.
The study authors deduced this hormone could play a role in obesity-induced blood pressure elevation, which could result in over- or underestimating the adiposity effect in certain children. They said more research is needed to determine what triggers hypertension when there is an increase in BMI and whether other factors, such as leptin or insulin, may play a role.
"If [doctors] see a dramatic weight gain in a child who already is overweight, they need to intervene with behavioral measures, such as dietary changes and increased physical activity, to improve overall health and minimize cardiovascular risk," concluded Tu.
Hidden Drivers of Childhood Obesity Operate Behind the Scenes
Oct. 31, 2011, Scientific American
By Rose Eveleth
New research reveals that the obesity epidemic in children has more complex causes than just diet and exercise.
Anxiety around children's eating habits often peaks during sweets-laden holidays like Halloween, but the factors that contribute to excess weight in kids extend well beyond special occasions. Most children who are obese—now 17 percent in the U.S.—will carry that extra heft into adulthood, along with the long-term health consequences. Scientists project that today's generation of children will live shorter lives than their parents and have higher rates of heart disease, diabetes and atherosclerosis. Despite diverse efforts—from first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's MyPlate nutrition guidance changes—the number of overweight and obese children does not seem to be dropping, which has sent scientists searching for other drivers of the childhood obesity epidemic.
One group at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign is enlisting experts from fields as wide-ranging as genetics and communications to try to untangle the intricate web of forces that yields a profusion of pudgy kids. "It's cellular makeup, it's child behaviors and child attributes, it's family behaviors within communities and environments within state and national level policies," says Kristen Harrison, founder of the university's Synergistic Theory and Research on Obesity and Nutrition Group (STRONG) Kids project. "It's incredibly complex." Factors such as heredity, access to exercise, parental food habits and cultural differences in portion sizes are all known to contribute to childhood obesity.
And these factors do not exist in isolation. "What we don't really know yet is how those factors interact with each other," Harrison says. And recently researchers at STRONG and elsewhere have started uncovering additional, surprising drivers of obesity, such as sleep schedules and the frequency of family meals.
More to diet and exercise
Getting kids to eat healthfully and get more exercise might sound simple, but the long list of genetic, cultural and environmental factors that lead children to these behaviors are complicated and interconnected, and scientists have just started to understand them in the past few years.
Fresh fruits and vegetables, for example, are not always accessible. Some communities have plenty of grocery stores that stock fresh, healthy foods, whereas other neighborhoods have only fast-food chains and corner convenience stores, making it difficult to get enough healthful items. "A family may be really motivated, but if it takes two bus rides to get to a store that carries fresh produce, it's hard," Harrison says. Outside the family sphere, children are also often confronted with a wide variety of pound-packing options in vending machines and even in school lunches.
Budget cuts at schools have also cut back on sports and physical education programs, reducing the amount of exercise kids get during school hours. And a lack outdoor play spaces like parks and woods can also hamper parents' good intentions. "Parents who live in neighborhoods that aren't safe, aren't going to send their kids to play outside," Harrison says. And an indoor lifestyle makes it difficult for children to get enough exercise to keep their weight down—or lose weight that they currently have.
The researchers are also quick to point out that all the blame cannot fall solely on parents either. "Often people say, 'Well parents, just stop feeding your kids so much,'" Harrison says. "There's an attitude that people are stupid, they're greedy, they don't care. And that couldn't be further than the truth." When parents in low-income communities are asked about nutrition, they know the right answers, he says. They know that their kids should be eating more fruits and vegetables, and less fast food. "So there's something way beyond just education."
Television watching, for example, turns out to be a better predictor of bad eating habits than does parental weight, race and income, and a child's gender and ethnicity—together—according to a study by Harrison and her team. This is probably prompted by child-targeted food marketing, combined with a sedentary lifestyle and snacking while watching. One study published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine in 2006 estimated that for every hour of daily television, kids consumed an additional 167 calories.
Parents, schools and even family doctors might be pardoned if they have neglected to consider some of the newly described factors that might be behind childhood obesity. In one study unconnected with the STRONG Kids Project, researchers in Australia set out to study how sleep might affect weight. They found that, contrary to their expectations, it was not the amount of sleep that mattered, it was timing, says Carol Maher, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of South Australia and lead researcher on the study. Children who went to bed early and got up early were far healthier than those who went to bed late and got up late, even though the two groups got the same amount of sleep.
It could be that those who go to sleep later spend more time watching television. Mornings tend to be better for exercise, whereas evenings are prime computer and television times—which means less exercise, more snacking, and more exposure to food marketing. But, Maher points out, it could also mean that kids who are more physically active during the day tend to get tired earlier, and go to bed earlier.
How often kids eat with their families also might impact childhood obesity rates—one group found that every meal not eaten with the family each week predicted an 8 percent increase in the likelihood that a child would be overweight. And health benefits of home-cooked meals might not be the only reason for this correlation, Harrison says. The simple act of a reliable family meal could also be adding psychological stability. Kids who feel like they have a support system and can manage their emotions tend to be healthier overall. Family mealtimes often provide parents a place to spot behavioral warning signs for depression or other unhealthy stressors.
Harrison hopes data from the STRONG Kids program will help policymakers examine the blind spots in current strategies. Because the drivers of childhood obesity are complex, solutions will have to be so, too, she says. Instead of tackling one factor, "they'd be double-barreled and triple-barreled policies," she says. For example, she said, policies that affect schools could address several of the causes of childhood obesity, such as access to vending machines, physical activity requirements, and even teaching students healthier habits. "If you attack a bunch of the influences at once," Harrison says, "you're going to get a much more powerful effect."
Overweight Teens Don't Seem to Grasp Weight Loss Rules
Nov. 2, 2011, HealthDay
By Denise Mann
Obese teens who want to lose weight may not be going about it in the most healthy or effective ways, according to new research.
Simply put, the researchers said, teens trying to drop the pounds don't seem to fully understand the link between exercise and calories. The analysis of nearly 44,000 adolescents who participated in the Philadelphia Youth Risk Behavioral Survey showed that, among the obese, girls who exercised still drank soda and boys didn't exercise at all. In addition, three-quarters of the obese teens said they were trying to lose weight, but these were also the teens more likely to smoke, possibly as a weight loss aid, the study suggested.
U.S. childhood obesity rates have tripled over the past three decades, and nearly one in three children in America is overweight or obese today. The new study, presented at the American Public Health Association's annual meeting in Washington, D.C., sheds some light on why reducing these rates is such an uphill battle.
Obese girls who were trying to lose weight were more likely to engage in at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day, but they were also more likely to consume a sugary soda on a daily basis, which basically offsets many of the benefits of their daily exercise, said the study's author, Clare Lenhart, a public health doctoral candidate at Temple University in Philadelphia.
"Most of them are interested in losing weight and that is a positive, but the soda has enough calories to make up for all of those that they expended during physical activity," she explained.
Obese males who were trying to lose weight did not exercise and spent more than three hours a day playing video games, the study showed.
"If someone is obese and trying to lose weight, doctors need to ask follow-up questions to find out how they are going about it and give suggestions on how to modify their behaviors," Lenhart said.
Dr. Yolandra Hancock, a primary care pediatrician at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., said that adolescents are motivated to change, but there is a lack of education about how to do that in a healthy way. "The study demonstrates a clear lack of understanding about how much calories are burned during exercise," she said. "To burn off the calories in one sugary soda, you need to run a mile, and most teenagers don't engage in that level of physical activity," Hancock noted.
"If an adolescent is trying to lose weight, it is important to ask them how they are going about it, because we may find out that there is lack of education about calories in and calories out," she added. "This is especially important in adolescents and teens because they are starting to make decisions for themselves in terms of what they will eat and how often they will exercise." Hancock usually stresses the easy-to-understand 5-2-1-0 rule to overweight and obese teens who want and need to lose weight. This refers to five fruits and vegetables a day, two hours or less of screen time such as TV or video games a day, one hour of physical activity a day, and zero or very little sugar-sweetened beverages a day.
There is also room for compromise in this rule, she added. For example, "if an overweight or obese young man wants to play video games, they can play 'Just Dance' . . . or other active video games," she said. "There is a way to meet in the middle."
Because this study was presented at a medical meeting, the data and conclusions should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Original Source: http://consumer.healthday.com/Article.asp?AID=658488
CHILDHOOD OBESITY NEWS
School Lunch Proposals Set Off a Dispute
Nov. 1, 2011, New York Times
By Ron Nixon
The government has some thoughts on how to make the federally financed school lunch program more nutritious: A quarter-cup of tomato paste on pizza will no longer be considered a vegetable. Cut back on potatoes and add more fresh peaches, apples, spinach and broccoli. And hold the salt.
The proposed changes — the first in 15 years to the $11 billion school-lunch program — are meant to reduce rising childhood obesity, Agriculture Department officials say. Food companies including Coca-Cola, Del Monte Foods and the makers of frozen pizza and French fries have a huge stake in the new guidelines and many argue that it would raise the cost of meals and call for food that too many children just will not eat.
With some nutrition experts rallying to the Obama administration's side, the battle is shaping up as a contentious and complicated fight involving lawmakers from farm states and large low-income urban areas that rely on the program, which fed some 30 million children last year with free or subsidized meals. Food companies have spent more than $5.6 million so far lobbying against the proposed rules.
A group of farm-state senators have already succeeded in blocking an Agriculture Department plan to limit the amount of starchy foods in school meals, and are now hoping to win a larger victory. The group includes Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, and Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, who once worked picking potatoes and led the opposition to the new starch rules last month.
A third of American children are obese or overweight, according to the government, and roughly 40 percent of the calories they eat are consumed in the school lunch period. Nutrition experts say if the nation wants to make progress on the obesity crisis among children, what they eat at lunchtime has to be addressed.
The Agriculture Department said the proposed rules would add about $6.8 billion over the next five years, about 14 cents to the cost of a school lunch. But, "our proposed rule will improve the health and nutrition of our children and is based on sound science," Kevin Concannon, an Agriculture Department under secretary, said in a statement.
Nutritionists like Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University and the author of "Food Politics," called the proposed guidelines long overdue. "Schools are supposed to set an example of many values of society, and one of them ought to be eating well," Ms. Nestle said. "It's unfortunate that the food industry is putting profits before the health of children."
According to a Harvard School of Public Health study, published this year in The New England Journal of Medicine, starchy carbohydrates like those in potatoes are responsible for many of the nation's health problems, including obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. French fries and potato chips are the worst uses of the potato, but even boiled potatoes contribute to weight gain, the study found.
"And kids in school are getting the full brunt of that in their potato-rich diets," said Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health. "While potatoes do have important nutrients, the nutrients can be found in other foods."
The food industry agrees that eating more fruits and vegetables and reducing salt is a good thing. It says it has developed healthier foods over time to make school lunches more nutritious. But they say the government's proposals go too far too quickly.
The National Potato Council, for example, said the proposal to offer fewer weekly servings of potatoes in favor of other vegetables and fruits was overly restrictive. "Everyone thinks that the only thing kids eat in school are French fries," said John Keeling, the council's executive vice president and chief executive. "But 90 percent of the potatoes served in schools are baked, boiled or mashed."
Mr. Keeling said potatoes provided many of the nutrients like potassium and fiber that the Agriculture Department recommends and that limiting potatoes would increase the cost of meals. "Ninety percent of kids aren't getting enough of the nutrients they need or the vegetables they need. It doesn't make sense to tell them to eat less," Mr. Keeling said. Besides, he added, children will actually eat potatoes as opposed to some other vegetables.
Leah Schmidt, director of nutrition services for Hickman Mills C-1 Schools in Kansas City, Mo., said children would eat other vegetables if they were cooked and seasoned to children's tastes. "But there is no denying kids will eat potatoes," she said. "They are popular."
The American Frozen Food Institute said it was particularly concerned that the new guidelines would overly restrict sodium levels and greatly increase portions of tomato paste to qualify as a vegetable serving. Schools would not be able to serve popular tomato products like salsa and spaghetti sauce unless the portions greatly exceeded one-quarter cup to count as a helping of vegetables. Corey Henry, a spokesman for the institute, called the tomato paste rules ridiculous. "You would basically render a pizza inedible if you had to put that much sauce on it to meet the new standards, and pizza is a big part of school lunches," Mr. Henry said.
The government's proposal echoes an uproar 30 years ago when the Reagan administration proposed saving money on the school lunch program by making a serving of ketchup a vegetable instead of a condiment. The idea was widely mocked and was never put in place.
The industry's arguments have been persuasive, especially to lawmakers from agricultural states or from districts with a large number of low-income students. Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, largely echoed the industry's arguments in a letter last June that asked the Agriculture Department to reconsider its recommendations on the timeframe for reducing sodium and the tomato paste rules.
Schools that serve more than 60 percent of their lunches for free or reduced prices are reimbursed $2.79 per meal by the federal government. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus worry that that might not be enough to cover the additional cost of preparing healthier meals in low-income districts.
The House has passed a bill directing the Agriculture Department to basically start over with a new proposal while the Senate has restricted the department from cutting back on potatoes.
"This whole fight obscures the fact that the U.S.D.A.'s proposal is about helping kids eat a wide variety of vegetable and make lunches overall healthier," said Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit research group. "It's about our children's health. I think that point has long since been lost."
Schools Face New Challenge: Return of Recess
Oct. 25, 2011, Chicago Tribune
By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah
When Chicago's Bright Elementary School added 15 minutes of recess to its school day this year, teachers ventured outdoors to find a run-down schoolyard with no playground, a sometimes violent neighborhood and a generation of kids who didn't know how to play outside.
At Namaste Charter School, officials this year spent $23,000 for a "recess coach," a modern-day schoolyard referee tasked with keeping fights and bullying to a minimum while also teaching games that could be unfamiliar to today's schoolchildren — games like four square, tag and dodgeball.
After three decades of no recess at most Chicago public schools, outdoor playtime returns next year with Mayor Rahm Emanuel's longer school day initiative. Across the country, efforts targeting childhood obesity, like first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign, also have helped trigger a recess comeback. But what many Chicago schools are finding is that bringing back recess is not as simple as throwing open the school doors.
For starters, years of neglect and changing priorities have left many schools without functioning playgrounds. Once a mainstay of the school scene, playgrounds are nonexistent at 99 CPS elementary and middle schools, and many of the ones that remain need repair.
Many city schools also have limited outdoor space. Some have campus parks and artificial turf fields to run on, but others have only slabs of concrete, often converted to parking lots. And then there's the issue of educators not knowing how to do recess.
"We've spoken to several principals and teachers and there is some anxiety over how to properly execute recess when it returns," said Evan Lewis, the executive director of the new Chicago office for Playworks, a national nonprofit that promotes recess in poor, urban schools. "People are apprehensive because they haven't had to do recess in a while. It's new to them."
About 42 percent of CPS schools today report having some form of recess, even if it's five minutes a few days a week. Districtwide, all CPS grammar and middle schools will be offering at least 20 minutes of daily recess next fall when CPS lengthens the school day to 71/2 hours.
While many educators acknowledge there are benefits to allowing school-age children to play outdoors every day, they also worry about how to keep kids from being idle during the break, how to stop bullying on the playground and where to hold recess — especially in space-challenged schools.
CPS officials have launched an inventory of what outdoor facilities will be available for recess next fall. A survey earlier this year found that while 79 percent of principals said they had playground equipment appropriate for kindergartners through third-graders, that number slipped to 32 percent for children in grades four to six and 13 percent for middle schoolers.
The assessment, to be completed by the end of this school year, will also address cracked concrete and how much it will cost the district to bring outdoor areas up to par — an issue that has not been of paramount concern over the last few years with the decline of recess and a financially strained school district trying to keep up with a $2.5 billion backlog of roof and masonry projects.
Starting next month, CPS leaders will begin chatting with principals to see not only how they plan to fill the additional 90 minutes of instruction time, but also what they're considering doing for recess.
Some principals have already begun planning and fretting.
At Hoyne Elementary School, an addition built in 1998 to address overcrowding displaced the school's playground and stretches of the schoolyard. Now, the Calumet Heights neighborhood school is bounded by sidewalks, a grassy patch in front and narrow slivers of concrete in the back and on one side.
Still, Principal Yvonne Calhoun said the school is embracing the arrival of recess, which it has not offered in the 20 years she's worked there.
She plans to stagger the midday break by grade and assign a stretch of grass in the front to young ones while middle schoolers get part of the backyard. School officials will bring out balls and rope from the gym and paint another hopscotch outline or two on the asphalt. Even if CPS were to offer to install a playground, there's no room, Calhoun said.
"If we get equipment, I don't know where we'd put it," she said.
At Langford Community Academy in Englewood, Principal Lynn Garner is exploring whether to add more support staff to watch the recess field or have teachers fill that role. And is there room for some kids to jump rope while others take over the newly installed artificial field for a game of soccer?
"My biggest concern is coverage and making sure there's enough teachers outside to keep children safe," said Garner, who would love to bring on a Playworks recess coach but can't afford it. "We'll just have to be creative in how we do that."
Recess fell off CPS' schedule starting in the 1970s as students with no stay-at-home parent stopped going home for lunch. Schedules were reworked and students stayed indoors for a 20-minute lunch.
In High Schools, a Critical Lens on Food
Oct. 26, 2011, New York Times
By Hannah Wallace
A commercial for McDonald's fish sandwiches played in a classroom at Park Slope Collegiate one day last month as part of a class called the Science of Food. It was clear that many students had seen the ad — several sang along with the jingle — but this was the first time they had been asked to critique it.
"Who is the target audience for this ad?" asked their teacher, Joni Tonda.
"Us!" yelled the 23 students, practically in unison. Through the class, which is part of a new program being taught at 15 city high schools, students are becoming aware that they are part of a lucrative demographic, and they are learning how companies target them.
Media literacy is only one part of Ms. Tonda's lesson plan, which is based on a curriculum developed by a nonprofit group, FoodFight. The group's founders, Carolyn Cohen and Deborah Lewison-Grant, two former public school teachers, set out to change the way adolescents think about food. By one estimate, 35 percent of adolescents in the United States are overweight or obese.
Though there have been several recent attempts to improve school food and to plant edible gardens at public schools — Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign among them — those efforts have largely been focused on elementary and junior high schools.
"High school students have been ignored in this conversation about the obesity epidemic," Ms. Cohen said. "It's a serious health crisis."
The lesson plan blends media literacy, politics, nutrition and cooking. Students learn how to evaluate food labels, to prepare nutritious and affordable meals, and to identify the political and economic forces that shape their diet. Some will visit urban farms, food co-ops and a 400-acre farm upstate.
Sarah Katz, one of the first teachers trained in the program, in August 2010, said the curriculum appealed to her because of its interdisciplinary nature and because it was not preachy.
"Telling kids what they should and shouldn't eat is not really effective," said Ms. Katz, who taught a class called Food for Thought at Essex Street Academy last spring. "Teenagers don't do things because adults tell them to. They need to care and have enough information to make their own choices."
A FoodFight course begins with a critical look at marketing campaigns. Some students react with outrage. "Kids don't like to be played by corporations," Ms. Katz said. "They want to make their own choices."
At another point, the class discusses why some neighborhoods lack access to healthy, affordable food, an issue that resonates with students because many FoodFight classes are taught in poor neighborhoods.
Students keep a food journal and learn how lobbyists try to influence federal dietary recommendations.
In the lesson about advertising at Park Slope Collegiate, Ms. Tonda organized her students into small groups and asked them to create a slogan for a real or imagined food product. Three boys in the back of the class designed an energy bar called Pro-Fit. "It's more than protein; it's Pro-Fit!" their slogan read.
Takiyah Newton, a senior, said, "I signed up for the class because I wanted to learn about the food we eat, and society and stuff." A highlight, she said, was "learning about these companies and how they're tricking us."
Ms. Tonda said she had seen some changes in students' behavior. After a lesson about the consequences of consuming too much sugar, Ms. Newton switched from McDonald's sweetened iced tea to a no-calorie drink, Ms. Tonda said, and now brings bottled water to class. Another student, affected by the images of a crowded chicken farm in the documentary "Food Inc.," has asked her mother to stop buying meat from industrial producers.
Ms. Katz, at Essex Street Academy, was skeptical at first that her students would alter their diets. But when she quizzed parents, it became clear that habits were changing. One student said he had cut out sugar-sweetened beverages. "His mom said, 'So that's why they're still sitting there in the fridge!' " Ms. Katz said.
Before Brandon Rosales took the class last year, he drank a lot of soda and never thought about portion sizes. "I would skip breakfast, eat a light lunch and then stuff myself at dinner," said Mr. Rosales, who acknowledged that he was overweight.
After his food journal revealed the unhealthy pattern, he began replacing juice and soda with water, he said, and started eating smaller meals. Since he took the class, he said, he has lost 10 pounds, and he continues to maintain the journal.
"Now my food journal looks clean," he said. "My meals are good; I drink water. It's like a healthy person's journal." His family history provides some motivation. "I have a family full of diabetics," he said. "I want to live a happy life not having to put insulin in like my grandmas do."