AMA Issues Child Obesity Agenda; Governor Vetoes Nutrition Mandate

Published August 1, 2005

At a June meeting in Chicago, the American Medical Association (AMA) issued several new directives it says will help fight childhood obesity and promote healthier lifestyles in schools across the country.

The AMA plans a school health advocacy agenda that includes funding for school-based health programs, physical education and exercise (with stricter limits on when students should be allowed to decline participation), alternative polices for vending machines to promote healthy diets, and standards for healthier school lunches. The directives also encourage physicians to collaborate with communities to help develop health programs in schools.

“I can’t say enough about more physical activity,” said Richard O. Dolinar, M.D., a Phoenix-based endocrinologist and senior fellow for The Heartland Institute. “You see some skinny teenagers who can eat all they want. But it is calories in versus calories out. Those kids are active and expend those calories. I always tell my patients, ‘Get active.'”

The new policies are a result of the AMA’s 2004 National Summit on Obesity, where national health experts met to identify various strategies to help fight obesity.

Governor Vetoes State Standard

Also in June, Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell (R) vetoed a bill that would have mandated nutrition and physical education requirements in the state’s public schools.

In her veto message, Rell said the bill’s efforts to impose state standards on local school districts for nutrition and physical education “undermines the control and responsibility of parents with school-aged children.”

An Act Concerning School Nutrition (S.B. 1309), said Rell, “though well-intentioned, does not strike the proper balance between parents and educators in terms of responsibility. Parents, in consultation with educators, should be determining the foods and beverages served to their children in schools.

“While it is undeniable that more needs to be done to encourage school nutrition, initiatives should be taken on the local level by locally elected school boards, in cooperation with parents and students,” the governor said. “The task of determining and meeting the health and dietary needs of children should, first and foremost, be undertaken by parents.”

Governor Calls for Guidelines

Still, Rell made it clear she supports the intention of the bill–encouraging healthy lifestyles in students–by directing the commissioner of the State Department of Education to develop and recommend guidelines for comprehensive school nutrition policies.

In a letter to Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg, the governor asked that the guidelines include:

  • methods for promoting physical exercise during and after the school day through physical education and organized recreation programs;
  • methods for providing healthy meals and nourishing options at all outlets within a school, including vending machines and snack stands, as well as breakfast and

lunch served in cafeterias;

  • strategies for meetings with parents, teachers, school board members, and parent-teacher organizations to identify support systems parents need to develop and encourage healthy lifestyles in their children;
  • techniques to involve children in these discussions “to recognize the realities facing students”; and
  • research and data on health trends that local school districts can use and provide to parents as they weigh nutrition choices.

Local Control Preferred

“Many school districts already have thoughtful policies concerning the types of foods permitted in their schools,” Rell said. “In addition, most school districts already meet the physical education requirements spelled out in this bill.

“Throughout my time at the Capitol, I have consistently spoken out against unfunded or unwarranted mandates. We violate the very foundations of our system of government when one level of government does not hesitate to impose requirements on another.”

“I’m all for healthy food in school, but it’s not the government’s job to mandate it,” agreed Dolinar. “The government shouldn’t say ‘Put orange juice in that machine instead of Pepsi.'”

Susan Konig ([email protected]) is managing editor of Health Care News.