Siting schools not the answer to child obesity

I feel like a broken record at times, but I have to, once again, disagree with Paul Bennet.

In his piece, Building healthy schools: Site to fight obesity (Chronicle Herald. June 14),  Mr. Bennet seemed to be saying that the answer to obesity in children in this province is to look at school siting. If schools were closer to students, he muses, then children would be more prone to walk or bicycle than take a bus, thus helping obesity rates. He cites a 2003 US EPA study that suggests that because large numbers of small schools were being replaced by a smaller number of large ones, students were less apt to use healthier modes of transportation. The same study indicated concern that fewer kids were walking to school in 2001, compared to 1969.

Well, I’d like to point out a few things.

First of all, I might suggest that more kids were walking to school in 1969 because, well, it was 1969. Kids were also playing monopoly in the folded down back seat of the station wagon on the way to the drive in while dad had a beer and was passing mom a cigarette. The world was a much different place.

Second, the study itself, available at http://www.epa.gov/dced/pdf/school_travel.pdf stated that the EPA had no real evidence to suggest why people might choose to drive rather than walk to school. “The literature on the impact of walking environment, school location, and other factors that may influence travel choices,” it states “remains slim.” So suggesting that siting schools would have any impact on obesity rates is a bit of a reach.

Finally, the study spoke about a mostly urban environment, so although this idea may have some merit in Metro, particularly considering where the new C.P. Allen building is located, it will probably not have a whole heap of applicability in, let’s say, Margaree.

I am not writing solely to debunk Mr. Bennet, however, but to point out that both he and Premier Dexter have missed the point. The recent announcement of over $2 million for the Thrive healthy living initiative which sparked Mr. Bennet’s piece sparked me as well. Obesity rates have been on the rise in Nova Scotia, true, but that is one of the reasons that the previous government declared every student in Nova Scotia would need a physical education credit to graduate. At the time, this caused quite a stir in some schools. One gym and four periods a day? What do you do when you need 7 gym classes?

Schools got creative. They doubled up on gym classes, (stuffing upwards of 60 kids in at a time) , put kids in classrooms to learn theory, (not so popular), and  offered new Phys. Ed credits, including Yoga and Dance. These alternate Phys. Ed. credits were an immediate hit, particularly with girls who had been traditionally under represented in the gym. They promoted healthy lifestyle choices and active living, while allowing students to advance at a pace set by their own physical ability. In my own school this year, we had 16 sign up for dance. Another 63 for yoga. We were hoping to offer four classes in total come September.

Then the budget axe fell.

We lost dance. Keeping a class of 16 kids was impossible. We had to reduce yoga from 3 classes of 21 to 2 classes of over 30. Both these decisions were due directly to budget cuts. Less staff in the building means more kids in classes. Period.

If the government is looking  for an answer to obesity in children from the education system, it will not be found in where schools are placed.  It will be found in how they are funded. I can’t, in good conscience, support an initiative that, although perhaps well intentioned, comes at a time when programs designed to accomplish the same goals are being cut from public schools.  Perhaps the $2million may have been better spent elsewhere.

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