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Guest column: Schools can help promote healthier lives

POSTED: April 11, 2008 5:01 a.m.

Marc Marton, Director of Communications for Voices for Georgia's Children in Atlanta.

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Why is kids' body-mass index such a weighty issue now?

Recently passed Senate Bill 506 calling for tracking children's weight in school has inspired some consternation among those who feel it to be yet another example of needless government intrusion (Sunday's Times, "A weighty intrusion.") After all, it should be the parents' responsibility to look after their offspring's weight, right?

Let me weigh in with a brief look at history -- my own -- to put things in a different perspective.

I grew up in and attended the public schools of New Jersey. All districts recorded weight and height twice a year, as well as conducted simple eye tests once per year. Later on, and I never bothered to find out why, annual scoliosis checks were introduced. This happened some 40 years ago and these routine exams took negligible time away from our studies.

The recorded data probably never made its way out of the nurse's filing cabinet, but it allowed parents to know if they needed to get their kids to a doctor.

And that's the only difference. Instead of sitting on the data, we can use modern computer systems to easily compile and organize data providing a useful measurement of overall child health in Georgia. Arkansas has successfully instituted a similar program of reporting a child's BMI to the parents confidentially without issue.

Obesity among children is a nationwide problem, having reached a critical point, with severe consequences on child health that have a negative domino effect on society. Obesity is correlated with asthma, diabetes and depression. These are common health conditions that cause multiple school absences. The more kids miss school, the worse their academic performance. The more sick days they endure, the less time parents can spend at their jobs. Business suffers because of reduced productivity. Surely, the health of our children reflects the health of the state.

On the other hand, current data shows kids with a healthier start in life tend to have better health over their lifetime, need less care into adulthood and, on average, are more productive citizens. And if you think about the Bill Gates' and Warren Buffets of the world putting considerable portions of their fortunes into public health programs, a serious look at health -- positive reinforcement of healthy lifestyles in school -- might be worth consideration.

Parents need to be involved, but we know that not everyone can be a good parent (even in two-parent homes), and not every parent is naturally qualified to be a teacher. So if kids are in school for more than six hours a day, what amounts to daily temporary state custody, imparting some of life's lessons along with standard curriculum is a good ideal. After all, human health has a definite correlation to biology, doesn't it?

But certainly, collecting health data of a broad student population during the course of the year is easy to do and can help the state make informed policy decisions down the road.

Marc Marton is Director of Communications for Voices for Georgia's Children in Atlanta. Contact: 404-521-0311. Voices for Georgia's Children engages in research, analysis and advocacy to assist the state's leadership in developing sound policy decisions that improve the well being of children. The independent, Atlanta-based nonprofit seeks to build consensus on a long-term agenda based on measurable goals that can significantly impact children's health, safety, education, connectedness and employability.


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