Obesity has proven to be a physiological condition that raises the risk of developing diabetes (as well as cardiovascular disease and other diseases).   Diabetes is currently a condition which can be maintained chronically through weight loss, diet restrictions and medicinally-mediated glycemic control.  The fact that treatments have become so efficient at maintaining patient health is great for all diabetic sufferers.  The flip side of the coin is that being terminally medicated is very expensive.  Between testing, frequent physician visits and never-ending medication the amount spent on this disease is overwhelming.  It is estimated that in the US in  2007 alone the medical costs for those with prediabetes was $25 billion. A glimpse into childhood obesity and diabetes can give us an idea of what we are facing in the health care world in the future.

The prevalence of obesity continues to rise for all age groups and ethnicities in the US.  The graph on the right is from the CDC monitoring program and shows the number of people with diabetes tripling from 1980 to 2006! The rate for 0-44 year olds moved from 0.6 in 1980 to 1.6 in 2006.  Combined with the fact that youths with type 2 diabetes have almost quadruple the rates of obesity as non-diabetic US youths this presents a troubling picture for public health.

One major piece of the diabetic puzzle is what we feed our kids in school.  As Ann Cooper says in a wonderful TED talk, “All of us send our kids, or grandchildren, or nieces, or nephews, to school and tell them to learn, you know, learn what’s in those schools. And when you feed these kids bad food, that’s what they’re learning.”  And the data is there to back Ann up, when schools offer fried foods and desserts, place vending machines nearby, or have low-nutrient energy-dense foods served a la carte there is a significantly higher likelihood of obesity in the school.

And the problem runs deep as many schools are given less than $1 a day to feed a child, a budget that any administrator would find hard to succeed with.  This leads to a situation where corporations can profit from making contract deals with schools, providing food and vending services to bolster the school’s budget.  I would say it is true that corporate America is much more interested in what we’re feeding our children than we as a public are.  They have shown the commitment to change our children’s eating habits and that they are willing to shoulder some of the cost to do it.

This meal of nachos and chocolate milk is on the menu everyday at many Chicago area high schools and has been brought into some middle schools as well.  And according to this Chicago Tribune report the longest line of kids snakes around to a group of lunch workers shoveling the yellow corn chips onto plates everyday, this is the most popular entree in Chicago schools!  At 471 calories and 25.3 grams of fat is it surprising that Chicago-area schools have almost double the national childhood obesity rates?

A study in England found that 2 of the 3 schools assessed did not meet the government standards.  Furthermore, the study found that children from more deprived socio-economic backgrounds chose less healthy food (maybe due to it’s lowered cost? Corporate subsidy in the lunchroom).  They recommend a pricing scheme which monetarily rewards healthy eating behaviors.

Studies have shown that schools are improving and moving closer towards USDA recommended meals (don’t get me started on how big a crock the USDA is though).  From 2004-2007 the availability of regular-sugar/fat items decreased in both middle and high schools.

But the blame doesn’t all lie on the schools.  The majority of calories taken in by children will be in their home or outside of school.  To add to this, many high school have open campus policies where the students can leave to get lunch.  It is important that we educate this generation of students in healthy eating and the benefit of making food at home because my generation is probably lost.  We came about in the McDonald’s led fast food boom.  I remember there being one fast food option when I was young and by the time I reached high school age I could choose from 10 different drive-thrus, all in a small West Texas town of 8,000.  Guess where I ate the majority of my high school lunches?  And then guess where I ate a majority of my meals once I got to college?  That’s right, Whataburger and Chik-Fil-A both had setup up deals where my school meal credits were directly transferrable to their menus, how wonderful and unhealthy at the same time, just what most college kids are looking for.

By 2020 what will the prevalence of obesity be in our population?  What will the age distribution rate look like and how will childhood obesity rates evolve?  These are some serious questions to ask and with the public up in arms over “preventing” disease rather than treating disease (which is a myth and public fallacy in itself, when was the last time you went to the physician and he told you that eating worse and not exercising would be good for you?) this is a great time to look at our priorities in schools.  Alone in this institution are we able to reach a whole generation of our population and teach them the importance of eating well.  I think it’s time that some serious weight be thrown behind these ideas.

Ann Cooper says that $8 billion would be a great starting point for revamping our school menus.  That is the current budget of the National School Lunch Program, split between 30 million kids that comes out to $2.49 a meal.  Considering overhead and and payroll that brings the total down to less than $1/day.  In Los Angeles the school spends $0.56 per meal.  That means it costs less to feed a kid in a Los Angeles school for a week than buying a latte at Starbucks.  That is a pretty sick number, and a testament to how far neglected we’ve let these massive public institutions get.  We’re willing to spend billions to save jobs and companies that have proven they will not act in our best interest but we’re unwilling to spend fractions of that to properly feed and educate our children about one of the most important aspects of health, what you put in your body.  This is a shame and an indictment of America’s priorities, one that I hope we take notice of and change the way things are going.

Guh, D., Zhang, W., Bansback, N., Amarsi, Z., Birmingham, C., & Anis, A. (2009). The incidence of co-morbidities related to obesity and overweight: A systematic review and meta-analysis BMC Public Health, 9 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1471-2458-9-88

Zhang, Y., Dall, T., Chen, Y., Baldwin, A., Yang, W., Mann, S., Moore, V., Le Nestour, E., & Quick, W. (2009). Medical Cost Associated with Prediabetes Population Health Management, 12 (3), 157-163 DOI: 10.1089/pop.2009.12302

Liu, L., Lawrence, J., Davis, C., Liese, A., Pettitt, D., Pihoker, C., Dabelea, D., Hamman, R., Waitzfelder, B., Kahn, H., & , . (2009). Prevalence of overweight and obesity in youth with diabetes in USA: the SEARCH for Diabetes in Youth Study Pediatric Diabetes DOI: 10.1111/j.1399-5448.2009.00519.x

FOX, M., DODD, A., WILSON, A., & GLEASON, P. (2009). Association between School Food Environment and Practices and Body Mass Index of US Public School Children Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109 (2) DOI: 10.1016/j.jada.2008.10.065

GOULD, R., RUSSELL, J., & BARKER, M. (2006). School lunch menus and 11 to 12 year old children’s food choice in three secondary schools in England—are the nutritional standards being met? Appetite, 46 (1), 86-92 DOI: 10.1016/j.appet.2005.08.005

Terry-McElrath, Y., O’Malley, P., Delva, J., & Johnston, L. (2009). The School Food Environment and Student Body Mass Index and Food Consumption: 2004 to 2007 National Data Journal of Adolescent Health DOI: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2009.04.007

BRIEFEL, R., WILSON, A., & GLEASON, P. (2009). Consumption of Low-Nutrient, Energy-Dense Foods and Beverages at School, Home, and Other Locations among School Lunch Participants and Nonparticipants Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109 (2) DOI: 10.1016/j.jada.2008.10.064