Bettering health in schools and at home

Children's food choices are improving inside and outside of schools.  Photo via Flickr
Children’s food choices are improving inside and outside of schools.
Photo via Flickr

In order to combat obesity there have been many changes inside and outside of schools aimed at getting children and their families more focused on health and wellness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 13.1 percent of adolescents are obese, and 14.2 percent of children are obese.

“Obesity prevalence has increased over the last three decades or so in the entire population and actually across the world,” said Melanie Hingle, Ph.D., at the University of Arizona. One out of  every five kids is obese in the U.S, and we are about the average here in Arizona.”

In 2010, Michelle Obama launched the campaign “Let’s Move,” to promote physical activity and healthier foods in schools along with better food labeling. The organization encourages better dining choices and increases in physical activity to create a better lifestyle.

On a state level, there have been many physical and health initiatives through various grants at the Arizona Department of Education. They have updated standards for physical and health education and trainings across the state, said Rebecca Drummond, director for family wellness at the University of Arizona. The state has an annual conference with an emphasis on physical activity and nutrition aimed at obesity prevention.

According to Shirley Sokol, a director for Tucson Unified School District (TUSD), the U.S. Department of Agriculture updated its nutrition standards for the first time in 15 years, as required by the Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The new regulations require cafeterias to offer more fruit, vegetables and whole grains and limit sodium, calories and unhealthy fat in every school meal. In June 2013, USDA issued the “Smart Snacks in Schools,” abolishing all unhealthy foods outside of the cafeteria.

“TUSD has historically provided nutrient dense meals.  Over the past decade, we have been ahead of the national trends in school food service.  We were one of the first school districts in the state to stop selling soda and a la carte snack items that were considered foods of non-nutritional value,” said Sokol.

Donna Johnson, another director at TUSD, said schools now have “Fusion Foods.” These are stations where children can choose foods and toppings.

“If healthy foods look appetizing it’s been proven that kids will eat it,” said Johnson.

Sokol added that TUSD has recently started a Community Culinary Kitchen class. This class teaches school community members how to prepare fresh produce into family friendly meals. “Each attendee goes home with nutrition information and recipes to share with their families.”

“For prevention to happen, we are going to have to increase activity that children want to do.  I believe that activity is a huge component.  Perhaps we need more activity related after school care so that children are not shut-ins until parents get off of work,” said Johnson.

Hingle said when it comes to the family environment outside of school, it is not more expensive to shop healthier but more time consuming. She said yes, it is more convenient to go through a drive thru but it ‘s more expensive to eat out than planning meals and cooking them. There are skills that go with that kind of meal planning and there are resources that can be helpful including federal resources, the Arizona Nutrition Network and The Garden Kitchen.

“Their whole mission is to provide particularly low-income families with skills they need to identify healthy foods and to prepare them and serve them at their house and grow them,” said Hingle. Their goal is to inspire people to make healthy food choices that have a lasting, positive impact.

The Arizona Nutrition Network provides education and resources to school systems in the form of activities and lesson plans. The USDA has, which gives low-income families food ideas when shopping on a budget.

When it comes down to the basics, Hingle encourages entire families to get up and be active. Parents should be good role models and eat high quality food, along with building an environment at home and in schools so kids can make healthy choices easily.

Contact Madeline Ruth at

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