As first lady Michelle Obama gears up this week to launch her campaign against childhood obesity, Hall County leaders already have begun tackling the problem in the place some say matters most — schools.
In early January, more fresh fruits and vegetables became a staple in school cafeterias as part of an initiative launched by the Hall County Board of Education to give students more control in selecting healthy food options.
“One of our goals is to offer more fruits and vegetables and to actually let the students have the choice,” said Cookie Palmer, nutrition program director. So far, Palmer said student and staff response has been overwhelmingly positive. At East Hall Middle School, the baskets of colorful fruit sitting next to cashiers rarely stay filled past the lunch hour, a staff member said.
“They (students) have really caught on to it,” lunch room manager Brenda Mitchell said. “I see really no waste. It’s used every day.”
Diana Pandoja, an eighth-grader at East Hall, said having fruit on the daily menu is good for students who want to eat healthier but may not know where to start.
“It tastes good and it’s sweet,” said Pandoja, who picked up an apple with her lunch on Tuesday.
Despite the added cost of providing fresh produce five days a week, Palmer said the program is worth the trouble.
“At this point, we’re more willing to put money into the meal if it means they’re getting more nutrition,” she said.
And school administrators hope improved eating habits will trickle down from students into their families, a chain reaction that health workers say is vital to promoting community health.
With more than 30 percent of Georgia’s middle and high school students considered obese, according to a 2003 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, childhood obesity is becoming a serious health problem. Local clinic workers said they are seeing more parents with children who have high cholesterol and diabetes — problems that could be prevented.
“It’s not even just a cosmetic thing for these young people to be obese. It’s also their health,” said Mary Ann Clever, dietitian with the Longstreet Clinic in Gainesville.
Obesity and related health problems could be caught early if parents schedule one-on-one appointments for their children to be seen by dietitians or nutritionists, Clever said.
Obama points out in her speeches on obesity that it was during a discussion with her daughters’ pediatrician that she realized she needed to change their eating habits.
But such appointments are not always covered by insurance policies, leaving some parents unable to foot the bill.
“I get a little upset, “ Clever said. “I get a lot of referrals from physicians, but many times parents do not follow through because their insurance won’t cover that. But we’ll pay for issues that can result from (obesity) later in life, like diabetes and high cholesterol.”
Clever said she hopes the first lady’s campaign will finally give the issue the attention it needs.
“(Obama) is in a position where she can really draw attention to this and really get something done about it,” Clever said.
At the local level, Gainesville kicked off a series of health programs in 2007 to promote communitywide health. The city was chosen by the Center for Health Transformation as a model for its HealthSmart initiative, which included a health and wellness expo, a restaurant challenge that awarded clients points for choosing healthier options and employer programs to give workers incentives to exercise.
The city has not begun an initiative specifically targeting obesity in children, but a former corporate fitness worker has taken on the challenge in some Georgia cities, including Gainesville.
Dorian Shockey began working this year with Friendship Elementary and Chestatee High to institute a fitness program for teachers. Shockey’s goal is to begin a similar program with students, but school response has been varied.
“Some are open to the idea and some aren’t,” Shockey said. “Some principals will make fitness a priority. Others don’t want to put anything else on the teachers’ plates.”
Cost is also an issue. After-school classes would not be free for students, and the current teacher program costs about $15 per month. But he said he is hoping that with Obama’s push for more active student lifestyles, grants to add school fitness programs would become available.