One in three American children is overweight or obese and at higher risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other health issues.
In Spokane and Kootenai counties, the rate is nearly one in four, according to area health districts.
First lady Michelle Obama launched a campaign Tuesday to fight childhood obesity, and Inland Northwest school districts are already on track.
Obama’s campaign, called Let’s Move, has four parts: helping parents make better food choices, serving healthier food in school vending machines and lunch lines, making healthy food more available and affordable, and encouraging children to exercise more.
“The big deal is too many convenient, really tasteful calories at our fingertips, and too many tempting sedentary activities,” said Doug Wordell, director of nutrition services for Spokane Public Schools.
Candy and pop vending machines are gone. Deep fat fryers have been removed. Whole grains have replaced processed breads.
“Most recently we’ve added fruit and vegetable bars at the elementary schools,” Wordell said.
Coeur d’Alene School District is moving away from prefried foods, such as chicken nuggets or batter-coated fish sticks, and replacing them with oven-roasted items, said Ed Ducar, director of nutrition services.
The meals also have a restricted calorie count. Elementary students across the region are given 680 to 700, and the middle and high school students are limited to between 700 and 750, officials said.
“We still have the traditional tasty stuff, but we have great portion control,” Wordell said.
“I feel very good about what we are offering our kids, but we only have them for a limited time during the day and five days a week,” he added.
Ducar said that in his district, “We are hoping we can use the cafeteria to teach about good food.”
While elementary and middle school students are captive audiences when it comes to school meals, many high schools have a harder time.
“We’ve tried to offer more choices,” Wordell said. “We have a vegetarian option every day.”
French fries, while still available, are baked, not fried. Other choices include pizza, burgers, burritos, salads and sandwiches.
Adjustments to exercise programs in schools have been in the works for some time.
“It’s been in transition for the last 10 years, moving from a game-based fitness to lifetime health,” said Peter Ellis, coordinator of fitness and health for Spokane Public Schools. “It’s quite different than it used to be.”
Elementary students do a lot of resistance training, using stretch bands to build muscles, a fitness ball for core work, and agility drills, Ellis said. “In the middle schools, we build on that.”
There are fitness rooms in each of the middle schools, and fitness centers and weight rooms in the high schools.
“Then there’s also the cognitive pieces,” Ellis said, “like why it’s important, the components of fitness, what type of nutrition is important for life. And there’s also the piece about barriers to fitness, like when life gets busy.”
Officials hope to teach food and exercise choices that will last a life time.
The first lady’s campaign has the same mission on a nationwide scale.
President Barack Obama created a task force on childhood obesity and has asked the secretaries of health, agriculture, education and interior to report back to him within three months on their findings.
“There’s no expert on this planet that says the government telling people what to do really does any good on this issue,” the first lady said. “This is going to require an effort on everyone’s part. We have to have a tailored approach on this.”