What are legislators doing in this battle of the bulge? Not much. Have a look at some clips from very telling piece in the Roanoke Times about the state of non-action in Rotherham's state of Virginia:
. . . .In Roanoke, the school system's federally mandated wellness plan calls on the school board to "support" at least 20 minutes of recess a day. But only two of the city's 21 elementary schools gave students at least 20 minutes of recess last year, according to data obtained from the school system.
State regulations require only that elementary school students receive physical education classes and recess but don't specify how much, leaving the details up to local officials, who in turn leave it up to individual schools.
Streamlining physical education citywide would be difficult because not all schools have gymnasiums, and only 17 PE teachers juggle all 21 elementary schools and their roughly 6,200 students.. . . .
Roanoke is not alone. High-stakes testing and rigid curricula have pinched physical education and recess across the country, according to Jim Bohland, director of the Institute for Community Health at Virginia Tech.
In Roanoke County, by contrast, the school system provides its elementary school students with a half-hour of physical education a day. In some schools, that daily half-hour doubles as recess.. . . .
It's hard to tell how successful school efforts have been. Right now, no one knows how many children in Virginia are overweight. State lawmakers have defeated efforts the past two years to measure the body mass index of public school students. The BMI calculates whether a person is overweight based on a ratio of height and weight.
Nine states -- Arkansas, California, Illinois, Tennessee, West Virginia, Delaware, Florida, Missouri and Pennsylvania -- have some program in place to measure students' BMIs.
But if Virginia starts regular BMI testing "what we will do is have a lot of parents who will be irate over doing that and ending up having their child come home embarrassed and upset because of the BMI," said state Sen. Harry Blevins, R-Chesapeake, who worked as a high school principal for 23 years.
Roanoke and Chesterfield counties, however, have launched their own BMI programs.
For the past three years, Roanoke County has been testing students in kindergarten and grades three, five, seven and 10. Last year, it tested 5,214 students and found that roughly 41 percent of boys and 37 percent of girls tested were either overweight or at risk of being overweight, roughly the same as the national average, according to LaVern Davis, the school system's supervisor of health services.
Those results have barely budged in the past three years.. . . .
Besides BMI testing, state lawmakers also have pushed back efforts to establish health standards in public schools and, earlier this year, killed a bill to rid school cafeterias of trans fats.
State Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, who was behind earlier unsuccessful legislative efforts, introduced a watered-down bill this year asking the state's school superintendent to partner with the health commissioner against childhood obesity. That bill, which was stripped of all mandates, was signed by Gov. Tim Kaine.
Edwards called it "irrational" that lawmakers who so readily embraced rigorous academic requirements for students and the state's Standards of Learning tests should be so reluctant to endorse statewide school health and nutrition standards.
Bohland, the Institute for Community Health director, agreed.
"We've challenged schools to improve the minds, but we really haven't challenged them much to improve the health and the bodies of our kids," he said. "That's an area where state policy could play a role but does not in this state."
But Blevins, who supported Edwards' bill this year, said mandating more physical education would require hiring new teachers and building new gyms. That's money the state wasn't going to provide, and lawmakers were hesitant to force local districts to foot the bill, he said.
Secret weapon: parents
Faced with vague government directives and perennial funding shortfalls, schools continue to rely on grass-roots volunteer efforts such as the running clubs to help children learn healthy lifestyles.
Parent groups are getting into the act as well. Instead of selling candy for fundraisers, state and national PTA groups are selling jewelry, wrapping paper and tote bags.
"We want to be at the forefront of this," said Mabe, the Roanoke County PTA officer. "We can talk about nutrition in the schools, we can ask the schools to serve more nutritious programs and all this. It's kind of like you lead by example."
Mabe has been doing just that. On June 2, 2006, as he was about to take over as the county's PTA president, Mabe realized he needed more energy and decided to lose weight. In the past year, he has dropped more than 170 pounds, thanks to diet and exercise.
To school officials, people such as Mabe are a secret weapon.
"When you get parents to buy into it, it's a lot easier because they [children] do go home after school," Roanoke County's Davis said.