Childhood-obesity legislative group offers four ideas for improving kids’ fitness

Childhood-obesity group offers four ideas for improving kids' fitness
The program is to treat obesity — and other eating disorders — with treatment, not with such simplistic advice as “exercise more and eat less.’’

Going back to the presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy, there’s been concern about the fitness of young Americans.

But unlike a half-century ago, partisanship has made even the subject of fitness difficult to deal with.

Woe be the pol who steps forward with aggressive approaches to a fitter society, such as mandates calling for more physical education classes and more stringent labeling of foods. In today’s political climate, those would be seen as encroachment of big government.

So pols walk softly around the subject of American softness.

For example in Minnesota, there’s a little legislative group, the Childhood Obesity Legislative Working Group that is trying to improve the health of the state’s kids without being controversial.

On Monday, the group came forward with its proposals for the session: 

• Support the Safe Routes to School program with $6 million in bonding for infrastructure, including sidewalks and improved pedestrian crossings.

• Require the Department of Education  to prepare a report on the status of physical education in the state’s schools, which includes the quality and quantity of physical education.

• Expand access to free school lunches by eliminating the 40-cent fee currently paid by those who qualify for reduced lunches.

 • Provide $65,000 for the Amateur Sports Commission Childhood Obesity program.

Such mellow — and inexpensive — efforts should offend no one, which by necessity is the goal of the Legislative Working Group.

“We work to come to agreement on things in our group,’’ said Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester. “We’re trying to not be controversial.’’

The group, which has been around since 2009, aspires to represent both the House and Senate and be bipartisan, although this year the bipartisan aspect is a bit of a stretch. Of  the nine members, eight are DFLers.

The lone Republican — Rep. Bob Dettmer, R-Forest Lake — is a perfect fit. He is an Army reservist and a retired physical education teacher, and he is old enough to recall when Kennedy did such things as write a cover story for Sports Illustrated about the sad shape of American youth.

Wrote Kennedy in the Dec. 26, 1960, issue of SI:

The physical vigor of our nation is one of America’s most precious resources. If we waste and neglect this resource, if we allow it to dwindle and grow soft, then we will destroy much of our ability to meet the great and vital challenges that confront our people. We will be unable to achieve our full potential as a nation.

In the name of national defense, Kennedy was able to push forward a series of physical-education standards in schools.

The old national-defense point still is effective across the political spectrum. 

But, according to Dettmer and others in the working group, many of the Kennedy-era standards have been hard to maintain. Budget-cutting in state schools have undercut not just music and arts programs, but physical education as well.

Other factors, too, have made the fitness problem more vexing.

With more emphasis on creating star, specialized athletes, through camps and year-round training,  the mediocre have wandered off to the sidelines.

“We’ve become too specialized,’’ said Dettmer. “I like the approach at West Point [his twin sons are Army Academy grads]. You have to be in an athletic activity, be in varsity or intramural.’‘

Of the four programs being pushed this year by the group, the potentially most far-reaching would seem to be the effort to support the program being instituted by the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission.

The program is to treat obesity — and other eating disorders — with treatment, not with such simplistic advice as “exercise more and eat less.’’

The commission plans to recruit 80 obese kids, ages 9 to 12, and work with them after school five days a week for two hours. The program will include teaching individual and team sports, classes for kids and their parents about nutritional eating, and a daily “healthy snack.’’

A special effort will be made to recruit children from poor families. Statistically, obesity is a greater problem among the poor, because eating badly often is cheaper.

Paul Erickson, who heads the Amateur Sports Commission, said the hope is that the program, will be the basis of a model that can be used as a childhood obesity intervention program. The effort will run from September to June 2015.

“If you and I had a friend who had a friend with an alcohol problem,’’ said Erickson, “we’d try to step in. That’s what we’re trying to do here. A doctor tells Johnny and his parents that they’ve got a problem [with obesity]. Rather than just saying ‘Eat less,’ we’re hoping we’ll have something that allows the doctor to say, ‘Here’s a nine-month curriculum that can help you.’ ’’ 

The need is real, members of the working group insist.

“There are studies that show our children are going to be the first generation of children with a lower life expectancy than their parents,’’ Norton said.

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