N is for Nutrition: Childhood Obesity and Schools

The average American child spends over 1,600 hours in the school environment a year — it is no wonder that an overwhelming number of Americans believe schools should be leading the fight against childhood obesity.

The role of schools in reducing childhood obesity was the topic of a recent TEDMED Great Challenges Program Google Hangout. The TEDMED Great Challenges Program provides a platform for experts, researchers, advocates and patients to learn and collaborate on “issues that can’t be solved with a magic bullet.” In this event, Amy Lynn Smith, a Michigan-based writer and strategist and expert of health policy issues, led a panel of experts in a discussion of user-submitted questions.

The Panel

Melissa Halas-Liang has over 15 years of experience in nutrition management, teaching, media and research and serves as the co-president of the Los Angeles District of the California Dietetic Association. She is the founder of Super Kids Nutrition, an online portal that empowers children and families to meet their full potential for health.

Travis Robinson is the vice president of business development for the nonprofit the Kitchen Community, which works to put learning gardens in schools and communities. Travis also has nearly 20 years of experience working with Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability and clean-tech companies in business development, financing and operations.

Cheryl Moder is director of the San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative, a childhood obesity prevention public/private partnership that creates healthy environments for children and families through advocacy, education, policy development and environmental change.

JuliAnna Arnett is the senior manager of operations and food systems for the San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative. She works with community gardens programs in schools and serves on a number of committees related to gardens, farm-to-school initiatives, farmers markets, food stamps and food security.

Laura Hatch, MPH, is the national outreach advisor at the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, an initiative founded by the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation that works with schools, private industry, community organizations, health care systems and families to effect change in the conditions and systems that affect childhood health.

Key Takeaways

  • To be successful, new health programs must gain “buy in” from teachers, administrators and parents.
  • No two schools or communities are alike — each is its own unique puzzle of challenges.
  • There is a pressing need to improve preschool and early childhood programs.
  • Nutrition and health should be integrated into all school subjects, especially math and science.
  • Engage the people involved directly for best results.
  • An effective school wellness council is a key to success.
  • Farm-to-school programs with an emphasis on gardens have been shown to be very successful in promoting environmental change.
  • The focus should be on the link between healthy children and increased academic performance.

Synopsis of Main Topics

Is reducing junk food marketing to kids effective?

Yes, but there is still a need to reduce messages through non-traditional marketing, such as junk food coupons as rewards for summer reading. Organizations such as Sesame Street are trying to do their part as they have agreed to license their characters free of charge to help promote whole, healthy, fresh foods.

So many people were excited about the success of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution in the United Kingdom. Why didn’t it work in the United States?

Change does not always come as quickly as people anticipate. Jamie Oliver went into a very large school system in Los Angeles with established bureaucracy and procurement practices that made the transition more difficult. The effort was fruitful in the sense that it called out the need for a better infrastructure within the schools themselves and the need to get parents on board with any planned changes.

What role does school design have in achieving reductions of childhood obesity?

The whole schoolyard should be seen as part of the learning campus. Playgrounds, gardens and activities on school grounds connect the lessons kids learn with real life, tactile scenarios. The built environment of the school cafeteria has a great impact on the nutrition of students. Many schools were built without the facilities to actually make fresh food. The layout of buffet lines may entice children to reach for the cookie in front of them rather than reach up for an orange, and the shrinking time allotted for lunch means that some children may overeat while others may not finish in time.

There are many things parents, advocates and other stakeholders can do to affect the way children eat and learn in school. In working with food directors, superintendents and teachers to find solutions to unique sets of challenges, a large-scale systemic change can be started — leading to healthier, happier, more successful generations.


MPH@GW, the online Master’s in Public Health from the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University, is proud to support the Great Challenges Program at TEDMED, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Through weekly dialogs with TEDMED’s intellectually diverse community, we move toward a more meaningful understanding of the Great Challenges of Health and Medicine. Visit the TEDMED website learn more about the Great Challenges Program. To share your ideas, join the discussion at #GreatChallenges.