Three West Virginia policy makers returned from an intensive workshop in Denver, Colorado, with a renewed focus on preventing childhood obesity and promoting healthy communities.
The West Virginia team included Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, Vice Chair of the WV House of Delegates Health and Human Resources Committee, Delegate Clif Moore, Chair of House Insurance, and Mercer County Superintendent Deborah Akers. With funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the National Conference of State Legislatures invited teams from five states to participate. The West Virginia team developed five recommendations for action.
“A key priority for our state must be to continue and strengthen the Cardiac Program in West Virginia.” said Delegate Fleischauer, D – Monongalia.
“We were proud to highlight the fact that childhood obesity in West Virginia has decreased by 8.6 percent, “added Fleischauer, “the largest reduction of childhood obesity in the entire country.” “We attributed much of the credit to reducing the percentage of obese youngsters to the efforts of the WV Cardiac Program, which for ten years has taken health measurements of over 100,000 fifth graders and offered advice to their families on what can be done to improve their health,” she said.
A second priority is legislation that would allow breakfast eaten in the classroom to be counted as instructional time, thereby allowing for increased time for physical activity in school. Superintendent Deborah Akers shared with other state teams how schools in her county have incorporated a reading program into their free breakfast program.
“Teachers tell me that when they read stories or chapter books to the students in the classroom when breakfast is served, students appear to eat more and stay more focused throughout the school day,” said Akers.
Because the challenges to finding more time in the school day to incorporate physical activity are different at the elementary, middle and high schools levels, the West Virginia team’s third recommendation is for a feasibility study to be conducted on how to best include the nationally recommended standard of 60 minutes of physical activity per student during the school day at each level.
A fourth proposal of the West Virginia team is to set up a system to recognize innovative ideas to promote healthy communities and reduce obesity, and get community stakeholders involved.
“Our thinking” said Delegate Moore, “is to use the competitive spirit to motivate citizens groups to work together.” “For example,” he said, “we could have a competition for West Virginia Fairs and Festivals to come up with the best and most fun healthy lifestyles activities.”
“Or,” added Fleischauer, “We could reward those fairs and festivals which include healthy lifestyle activities in their programming with larger grants.”
Akers is working on an idea to encourage students to walk with her to the schools in her county. “I wouldn’t have to do all of them at once,” she observed, “but the conference got me thinking about what positive action I could personally take. Perhaps other superintendents might have ideas on how they can function as positive role models, too.”
Fifth, the team hopes to support on-going efforts of Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick, state Colleges and Universities, farmers markets and local school districts to include more healthy foods in school menus.
“We believe that expanding production of local fruits and vegetables and getting them into our schools will have many positive benefits,” said Moore. “I am very excited about using local foods in the schools to diversify our economy,” he said, “We can help farmers by providing them with a guaranteed market and at the same time we can teach children about the benefits of eating healthier foods. It is a win-win proposition.”
The team plans to meet again soon. They have invited Sapna Batheja, Project Manager of Children’s Programs at the American Association of School Superintendents, to visit West Virginia and help the team finalize plans for accomplishing their five recommendations. Ms. Batheja, who has degrees in public health and dietetics, facilitated team meetings in Denver and suggested using legislation from Ohio as a statutory model for legislation in West Virginia.