Maryland Considers, Pennsylvania Adopts Measures Aimed at Student Obesity

Published June 1, 2006

Childhood obesity is a growing concern for health advocates and educators alike. In efforts to curb it, some states are turning to controversial measures that include having schools report children’s body mass index (BMI) to their parents.

This spring, Maryland state Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s County) introduced a bill requiring the state’s public schools to determine the BMI of students and screen for diabetes. The law also would have required county education boards to promote healthy nutrition and wellness programs.

Pinsky’s bill, S.B. 457, met with opposition in both the Maryland House and Senate, and the provisions for statewide BMI measurements were removed before it reached the full Senate.

“The [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] calls [obesity] an epidemic and I don’t think the school system should put our heads in the sand,” Pinsky told CNN on March 6.

Controversial Measures

Pinsky’s bill would have required county boards of education to collect children’s health information and distribute it to their parents. It also would have required those boards of education to limit allegedly unhealthy foods served and sold in school cafeterias.

State Del. Anne Kaiser (D-Montgomery County) agreed with Pinsky about the need for action on childhood obesity. She introduced a similar measure in the Maryland House of Delegates on February 10.

But both bills encountered opposition in committee. The Senate’s Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee and the House’s Ways and Means Committee removed the provisions that would have required statewide collection of BMI data.

“People were nervous that parents would receive a report card that said that your kid is fat,” Kaiser explained.

The amended versions of both bills would have established a Maryland Obesity Awareness and Prevention Blue Ribbon Panel, a proposed 18-member committee of executive branch officials, one state House member, one state Senate member, and 14 private citizens appointed by the governor. That panel would make recommendations to the legislature for improving student health. The Senate bill also called for Prince George’s County to develop a pilot program for reporting BMI scores to parents.

On March 24, the House version passed 131-5. On March 27, the Senate version passed 37-10. State Sen. Janet Greenip (R-Anne Arundel County) thought schools opposed the BMI provision and voted against the final version of the bill.

“What they can’t get passed in a bill, they set up a commission to implement,” Greenip said.

On April 8, a conference committee was appointed from the House and Senate to reconcile the two versions, but it never met because the legislature recessed on April 10. Kaiser said there would not have been time for the legislature to have three readings of the bill, as required by the state constitution.

Growing Problem

But in neighboring Pennsylvania, similar measures have been implemented this school year with little fanfare.

On September 4, 2004, the state health department issued a regulation requiring students in kindergarten through fourth grade in 2005-06 to have BMI calculations performed as part of school health screenings. That information is given to parents, along with health information related to obesity.

For the 2006-07 school year, the Pennsylvania requirement will cover students from kindergarten to eighth grade. In 2007-08, all students will be covered.

“We wanted parents to have more information and to understand risk factors,” said Pennsylvania Department of Health spokesman Richard McGarvey. “As we look at the information on obesity, it seems that the problem is getting worse.”

Concerned Advocates

McGarvey said the BMI measurements were a simple addition to the state’s existing requirements concerning collection of information about children’s height and weight. He said his department is considering several other measures, including nutrition instruction and exercise in schools, to combat childhood obesity.

Having schools record and report BMI is not without potential bad consequences, however, according to some observers. Some eating-disorder groups, for example, have expressed concern over the trend.

“We need to make sure that new programs don’t exacerbate unhealthy eating patterns,” said Bryn Austin, assistant professor of pediatrics at Children’s Hospital of Boston and a member of the Academy of Eating Disorders (AED). “We don’t want new reporting requirements to lead to greater weight-related teasing and bullying [in school settings].”

Michael Coulter ([email protected]) teaches political science at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.