The daily afternoon routine at the Boyce household in North Little Rock is not unlike that of millions of other American families: Children come home from school and seek some form of entertainment and an after-school snack.
What caught Tammy Boyce, the mother of public school student Jaden, 8, a little off guard was that her daughter was making conscious efforts to make healthier choices regarding her after-school activities and snack options.
“She was picking up at school how important it is to limit computer or television time in favor of getting outside and finding a physical activity,” Boyce said. “She also started making comments about avoiding sugary snacks and choosing a piece of fruit or having a healthier snack.”
Young Jaden wasn’t picking up an eye for healthier lifestyle choices on a whim. It was, rather, likely the effect of a concerted statewide effort to curb childhood obesity at school that both experts and research confirm is spreading from the hallways and classrooms to living rooms and kitchen tables.
“This is the first year we’ve seen that both parents and children are making healthier changes in physical activity, what they eat and drink at home, and in the amount of time they allow for television or video games,” said Dr. Martha Phillips, assistant professor in the UAMS Departments of Psychiatry and Epidemiology. “We’re not just affecting the school environment, but we’re starting to see changes in the home environment, which, if they continue, are very positive signs of changes that complement and support those being made in schools.”
With the passage of Act 1220 of 2003, the state began annually measuring students’ body mass indexes (BMI) while setting new physical activity and nutrition standards.
Each year, along with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the UAMS College of Public Health uses interviews and surveys of teachers, administrators, students and their families to evaluate the impact of the legislation. The evaluation’s lead investigators are Phillips and College of Public Health Dean Jim Raczynski.
“Act 1220 is working to create a healthier environment in schools across the state,” Raczynski said. “Parents, students, school personnel and communities are working together to help our children establish healthy habits at a young age and integrating those into our public school system.”
In addition, the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement (ACHI) secured funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to support development and maintenance of a database containing the BMI measurements. ACHI is a nonpartisan, independent organization sponsored by UAMS, the Arkansas Department of Human Services and Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield.
The Survey Says
The fourth evaluation of Act 1220 of 2003 shows more dramatic progress in the state’s school districts’ attempt to ban or reduce junk food in school vending machines. According to the report, nearly 61 percent of Arkansas school districts now ban or limit sugary snacks. That’s a significant improvement from the 18 percent of districts making the effort in 2004.
The trend that healthier habits at school are further translating into students’ home lives is evidenced by 83 percent of families reporting that they limit consumption of sweets, chips and soda, which is up from 76 percent in 2004.
The study showed that 72 percent of students increased physical activity in 2007, up 10 percent from third-year results. School principals also report that 26 percent of vending items at schools are in a healthy category, up from 18 percent in the evaluation’s first survey four years ago.
The BMI measurement is used as a screening method to identify possible weight-related health problems, and is a key part of Act 1220 and state leaders’ efforts to reduce obesity levels that have become epidemic in Arkansas and across the nation.
Public schools measure BMI for students in second, fourth, sixth, eighth and 10th grades each year, and provide parents a confidential report including an explanation of potential obesity-related health risks and suggestions to help families improve nutrition and increase physical activity.
“Arkansas’ passage of Act 1220 has put the state in the national spotlight, and other states continue to look to Arkansas as a model for tackling their own obesity problems,” Raczynski said. “I think the comprehensive approach we’re taking in our public schools is making a difference, and we expect to see continued improvements.”