April 21, 2006 – After expressing their concerns about the rising levels of obesity in adolescents, several community members, Education officials and health care representatives put their heads together during a meeting held Friday at Palms Court Harborview Hotel to develop a comprehensive wellness policy for schools in the St. Thomas-St. John district.
The plan, which is part of a federal mandate for all states and territories, has to be in place by July 1, and would introduce nutritional and physical education requirements at the public elementary, junior high and high school levels.
According to Elva Huggins, district director of the School Food Authority, the policy – which is federally funded – would also look at providing health education for students, teachers and parents about the importance of eating right and exercising regularly.
"We're hoping that in teaching the kids how to make wiser food choices, we would also be able to get through to parents and other community members as well," Huggins said after the meeting, which was designed to outline the status of nutrition and obesity in the district while pulling various community members and industry officials together to form a "wellness policy committee" to help construct the plan.
According to statistics provided Friday by Janney Hawley, a registered nurse with the Health Department, obesity levels in children between 6 and 11 have more than doubled in the last 20 years, contributing to prevalence of Type 2 diabetes in adolescents, along with heart disease, asthma, joint problems and some types of cancers.
She said children who are overweight at a younger age are most likely to stay overweight during adulthood, which could further contribute to the buildup of fat cells around the liver and kidneys, causing the development of other diseases.
"This not just a challenge we're facing, it's an epidemic," Hawley said during her presentation. "And it's not right – kids shouldn't be, and don't want to be, developing heart disease at such a young age."
Among the factors contributing to obesity levels in the territory are physical inactivity and an unhealthy diet, she added, saying that children currently spend an average of four hours each day playing video games, surfing the Internet and watching TV instead of spending time outdoors.
Some community members at the meeting said the prevalence of fast food chains next to schools and hospitals is also a major contributing factor to obesity, with residents and students stopping in at eateries like McDonald's for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Others said local restaurants are sending employees over to school during school hours to take orders from students, allowing them to purchase candy bars, pastries and fried foods instead of eating lunches served at school.
To combat these activities, speakers said nutritional education and the regulation of unhealthy snacks in schools are the keys to fighting the "uphill battle" with obesity.
They said measures should be put in place to incorporate healthy activities in the classroom – including teaching kids about calories and other nutritional values during math periods, or simply conducting classes outside during the school year and organizing "game days" for students to promote a healthier atmosphere.
Dr. Letitia Henry, a nutritionist with the University of the Virgin Islands Cooperative Extension Service, said that providing healthy snacks and new food choices in public schools is also beneficial, and demonstrated that sometimes both students and teachers can be unaware of exactly how unhealthy certain snacks and beverages can be.
A regular-sized bottle of Brow soda, for example, can contain up to 23 teaspoons of sugar, which equals about 11.5 ounces, she said.
Henry said students are prone to thinking that sugar is good for them, and that larger-sized bottles of juice or soda instead of smaller bottles are economic purchases. "However, a large bottle of juice is equaled to about two servings, which means that the figures on the nutrition label have to be multiplied by two in order to get the correct amount of grams per serving," she said.
"That's more sugar and fat than you think."
She said students should learn how to substitute larger-size bottles or servings sizes for smaller portions and fewer ounces. "You could lose weight just by switching your beverage," she said, explaining that if an individual cuts 500 calories out of their diet every day, he or she could lose up to one pound a week.
Henry emphasized the importance of making sure students eat at least five times a day – three meals and two snacks – which would help to jumpstart their metabolisms and increase their performance in school.
While some Education representatives said that the block scheduling system in public schools makes it hard to have multiple snack periods, Henry said that schools could provide grab-and-go tables at the cafeteria so students can stop in and pick up healthy snacks before and after classes – a suggestion later added as an idea to be incorporated into the new policy.
Statistics given by Dr. Yahaya Bello, deputy superintendent of schools for the St. Thomas-St. John district, also provided food for thought, with community members discussing the possibility of developing nutritional policies for teachers and staff, along with students.
Based on a recent survey – where statistics were pulled from seven out of the 17 public schools in the districts – teachers and principals feel there are few initiatives to provide health screenings and stress management training for staff, along with programs for physical fitness, he said.
Other ideas were discussed as residents and officials broke up into two groups to brainstorm and review parts of a draft policy created by the federal government.
According to Huggins, the ideas will be reviewed and incorporated into a policy outline by the head of the St. Thomas-St. John District Wellness Policy Committee, then e-mailed to other committee members for comments.
"It's time for us to change our habits," she said. "This policy allows gives us someplace to start."
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