Now that all schools are back in session, cafeterias in every corner of Kentucky are bustling with students sweeping through lunch lines, sitting down with their best friends and sampling their meal. It's in these loud, boisterous rooms that the fight against childhood obesity, which is higher in Kentucky than in all but a few states, is beginning to take shape.
Many children eat more than half their calories at school, but schools are just one of the battlegrounds. Across the country and the state, there are initiatives that are gaining traction to take a bite out of the problem.
When school started this year, the 556,000 Kentucky kids who get their lunch from school cafeterias may have noticed a more apples and oranges on their plates. With the goal of creating a healthier school environment, the United States Department of Agriculture has revamped school lunch regulations for the first time in 15 years. Many of the changes involve what some see as the saviors of kids caught in the obesity epidemic: fruit and vegetables.
In order for lunches to qualify for School Lunch Program funding, students now must have at least one serving of fruit or vegetables on their plate by the time they reach the cash register. And "vegetable" no longer just means French fries. And at least once each week, schools must serve a green, leafy vegetable like broccoli or spinach, plus an orange or red vegetable like carrots, and a legume like lentils or chickpeas, which are a good blend of protein and carbohydrates with very little fat.
Will students actually eat those foods? Julia Bauscher, food service director at Jefferson County Public Schools, is optimistic about elementary school students. So is Ginger Gray, director of food services in Kenton County, who has been serving such vegetable dishes as broccoli parmesan and kale chips for several years.
"Kids are more open to trying new things than adults realize." Gray said, but "It takes persistence. You can't just say I tried it once and kids didn't eat it so you don't try it again."
High school students are a harder sell. Sylvia Moore, child nutrition and food service director at Mercer County Schools, said lunch participation rates have dropped by about 5 percent since the beginning of the school year. "Just this week I was up at the high school to stand at the garbage can. I was just there a minute when a girl came and tossed her totally-untouched orange in front of me," she said. "We are already making healthier garbage cans," not healthier students, she added.
The media angle
Another nationwide effort involves what children see on TV, which could have a big impact. A 2009 study found they average more than 32 hours a week. Excessive TV viewing is linked to a sedentary lifestyle, and American children see about $1.6 billion a year worth of food and beverage marketing. "It's a double-whammy," said Josh Golin, associate director for the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood. "It's the combination of not moving, and being urged to consume unhealthy food."
By 2015, that will change on channels of the Walt Disney Co., which will no longer put ads for products like Capri Sun and Kraft Lunchables (left), as well as a variety of candy, sugared cereal and fast food.
The television show iCarly, popular on Nickelodeon, is approaching the issue differently, encouraging viewers to create their own wacky veggie dish and submit the recipe for the "iCarly iCook with BirdsEye" intiative. Spots on the channel show the kinds of dishes the contest wants, like a "veggie sundae," which consists of a scoop of carrots, cauliflower and broccoli in a banana split dish.
A 2006 study showed 88 percent of the food ads on Nickeldeon promoted unhealthy food. A year later the channel announced its characters like Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants would be licensed to sell only healthy foods; that's why Dora appears on packages of frozen edamame -- green soybeans, often in their pods.
Teaching the basics, and behaviors
Statewide programs are also infiltrating directly into communities. One involves cooking classes, with teachers from the University of Kentucky's Nutrition Education Program setting up demonstrations everywhere from public housing to women's crisis centers to church basements.
For 10 weeks, the teachers educate low-income adults about the basics of cooking with the hope they will change the way they feed their families. "We talk to them about how to use coupons, how to use dried beans instead of canned beans, how to use those leftovers and how to stretch their food dollars so they can provide good-tasting and nutritious food," said Debra Cotterill, the program's director.
The 43-year-old program was created to teach people how to use government commodities, like big blocks of cheese, that they received in the 1970s. Since obesity has become so prevalent, Cotterill said the emphasis has changed and interest in classes is up dramatically. In fact, Cotterill said the extension program's whole mission has expanded.
"It is not enough to share information, we also have a responsibility to help change behaviors," she said. "Now, all agents do some type of nutrition education in their work somewhere or other, even the ag agents, because it's become such a problem in our counties."
State regulations lack some specificity
Since many children entering kindergarten are already overweight, state government is examining preschools and daycare centers to see what policies they have in place when it comes to nutrition and physical activity. Though there are state regulations for licensed child care centers, "the language is not specific," explained Elaine Russell, the state's obesity prevention coordinator. For example, regulations say bread should be served with meals, but don't specify the type of bread, such as whole grain or whole wheat, and don't prohibit high-fat snacks or sugar-sweetened beverages.
As part of a pilot program, state workers went to nine facilities each in Northern Kentucky, the lower Green River region and the Barren River region to assess their policies, teach directors and staff about obesity in Kentucky and discuss goals with directors and staff about their goals.
They also taught them the program 5-2-1-0, a catchy way of reminding students they should have five servings of vegetables each day, no more than two hours of screen time, at least one hour of physical activity and drink zero sugary beverages. The program is being pushed by pediatricians and at offices where poor mothers sign up for the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program. "Our goal is to make sure our parents hear this from more than one spot," Russell said. "We can change these policies but unless parents understand why we're making them, they probably won't stick."
Many facilities in the pilot program didn't have wellness policies before the process, but all did afterward. However, Russell would also like to see child-care centers adopt the standards for nutrition and physical activity as suggested in Caring for Our Children: National Health and Safety Performance Standards, which have stronger guidelines that promote active play every day and follow minimum standards as recommended by the USDA's Child and Adult Care Food Program. "Some states require at least two hours of physical activity a day, she said. "Physical activity is encouraged in Kentucky, but it's not specified. Kentucky rules do limit screen time, but kids are still allowed to watch two hours a day."
An early start
Some programs focus on even younger children, including infants, and pregnant women. "A lot of times when we talk about childhood obesity, we kind of default into talking about school-age kids," said Amy Swann, senior policy analyst for Kentucky Youth Advocates. "But if we're going to take a really multi-faceted approach, what we now know is it actually starts with the mother's nutrition while she's pregnant."
That idea is behind the Kangaroo Care Initiative, which promotes skin-to-skin contact with new mothers and their babies in order to promote breastfeeding and bonding. Among other benefits, breastfeeding can help reduce the risk of obesity. One study showed children who were breastfed were 22 percent less likely to be overweight by age 14, said Marlene Goodlett, Kentucky's breastfeeding coordinator.
The effort started in 2007 with the University of Louisville's Hospital Center for Women and Infants. This year, U of L partnered with the WIC program to train all 51 birthing hospitals in the state. Now, 84 percent of them have implemented Kangaroo Care. One of the first hospitals on board was Flaget Memorial Hospital in Bardstown, where breastfeeding rates increased to 61 percent from 49 percent.
From a walking trail mowed on land owned by the community hospital in Winchester, to the Hopkinsville farmers' market accepting food stamps, there are local efforts to combat obesity in place that, inch by inch, are causing change.
These success stories are detailed in the report "Shaping Kentucky's Future: A Community Guide to Reducing Obesity," funded in part by the state health department, which illustrates ways Kentucky communities are making policy, environmental and systems changes.
One of these is the Better Bites program in Lexington, a revamp of how food is sold at swimming-pool concession stands in Lexington. "We learned you could exercise at the pool for two hours, go to the concession and get a standard hamburger, fries and soft drink combo and you would actually take in more calories that you're burning. That was a shocking statistic for us and really propelled us along," said Brian Rogers, deputy director of enterprise at Lexington Parks and Recreation. Organizers introduced menu items like yogurt and fresh fruit, replaced hot dogs with turkey dogs, standard popcorn with low-fat popcorn and sold only baked chips at two public swimming pools in the city starting last year. This summer, candy sales went down 20 percent. and the Better Bites menu items constituted 15 to 20 percent of all sales, up from 10 percent last summer, Rogers said.
Berea is concentrating its efforts on environmental change with its Complete Streets project, which is aimed at making the city's streets more accessible to walking and biking. Two major projects — a bridge project that includes sidewalks and bike lanes and a three-mile trail that connects downtown with the Indian Fort Theatre — are opening up much more territory to pedestrians. The city has coupled these efforts with simple changes like making walkways more visible, installing bike racks around town, and changing the timing on lights to give pedestrians more time to cross the road.
Mayor Steve Connelly said the effort is about culture change. "I do think that we have perhaps by accident created these barriers to walk and bike largely since the 1950s when America really fell in love with the Interstate, franchise restaurants, the suburbs and the automobile," he said. "Really, we need to get back to walking as second nature." With each installation of more sidewalks and trails, though, that is exactly what is happening, Connelly said. "It's the classic when you build it, they're out there using them," he said.
Still a way to go
While progress is being made, experts say the nation is just beginning to round the corner on the problem. Though some studies show childhood obesity and overweight rates may be leveling off, many kids are simply graduating from the overweight to the even more unhealthy obese category, said Dr. Christopher Bolling, a Kenton County pediatrician.
After a visit this fall to school cafeterias to document changes that are happening there, perhaps reporter Lenny Bernstein said it best in The Washington Post: "If we don't yet know how well we're doing in this battle, we are at least figuring out how to develop our weapons."