There is a tremendous amount of discussion around the childhood obesity epidemic and its impact on immediate and long term health and wellbeing. According to the Centers for Disease Control, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. In fact, as of 2012 more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.
Schools are concerned because of the impact on student achievement, companies are concerned because this is the future workforce and even the military is concerned because of the lack of recruits who are fit enough to enlist. The simple truth is healthy lifestyle habits, including healthy eating and physical activity, can lower the risk of becoming obese and developing related diseases. In 2009 First Lady Michelle Obama started the Let’s Move campaign to get America’s students doing physical exercise and eating more healthily. In 2010 the USDA introduced The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act which was the most sweeping change to the federally funded breakfast and lunch programs in 60 years.
Student health and wellbeing is the focus of what we do in Sodexo’s K-12 division. With innovative programs such as A-Z salad bars, nutrition education in the classroom, Fine Dining as well as partnerships with organizations such as The Alliance for a Healthier Generation and the Partnership for a Healthier America, we are continually looks for ways to support our students. All of these initiatives and partnerships enable us to help students establish healthy lifestyle habits so they can realize their full potential. But the real key to success, is partnering with the students themselves.
Historically, there has been very little discussion with the youth impacted by the obesity epidemic regarding ways in which they can be a part of the solution. It is my belief that the time has come to really empower students with the tools, education and resources so they can make informed decisions about their health and wellbeing. We have the opportunity to engage them in the discussion to improve their activity and nutrition, not just while they are in school but in the pattern of their life. There are plenty of individual examples to show the power of mobilizing youth but the key is finding ways to replicate this on a large scale so that it has energy, momentum and long-term applicability.
I know that when I visit schools and talk with students they have a perspective and they want to be involved in all sorts of ways that were unheard of even a few years ago. Some people may find the prospect of unleashing this energy to be disconcerting or even disruptive but it represents a new and effective resource to address the issue. Change is always unsettling and we must help one another to embrace the change and to make sure it is a force for good.
Sodexo is a partner with the GENYOUth Foundation which has just released a study entitled “Empowering Youth: Students as change agents for wellness in schools and communities.” Their focus is on engaging and empowering youth to work towards making lasting change and to reverse the tide of childhood obesity. GENYOUth is doing great work in bringing together leaders from business, education, non- profits and government to share best practices and to provide resources. They know, as does Sodexo, that we have to find new ways to address the health and wellbeing challenges plaguing our country because the top down approach is not working. Empowering our youth to work from the bottom up is the real opportunity to solve the obesity epidemic.
Ted Monk is Senior Vice President, Schools, Sodexo.