Tuesday, January 4, 2011

About Those Fat Kentucky Kids

John David Dyche writes a column in today's C-J that gave me pause in my ongoing critique of the Nanny State. Dyche defends a legislative initiative to combat childhood obesity brought by Republican Rep. Addia Wuchner of Burlington.

Wuchner's proposals have been attacked by some Kentucky conservatives as more government intrusion into our daily lives. Dyche writes that Wuchner would like to build upon recent Kentucky legislation which set nutritional requirements for school lunches by adding the following:

  • 30 minutes of daily physical activity for elementary students;
  • recording the child's Body Mass Index in school physical forms
  • formation of a obesity task force and
  • direct the cabinet for Health and Family Services to set nutrition and exercise standards for licensed child care centers.
Dyche points out that conservatives who decry such proposals as the Nanny State telling parents what to feed their kids ignore externalities of the problem. Given Kentucky's poverty -- and our rate of obesity -- this is a public policy problem for which tax payers will continue to pay more and more. This is not just a matter of individual responsibility because Medicare and Medicaid eventually shifts the costs back the rest of us, regardless of our BMI.

Nonetheless, Wuchner's proposal for daily gym class could pose real hardships for schools.

As a former school board member, I have had principals point out to me the scheduling nightmares that would ensue for local schools, if Frankfort forces each elementary child to have 30 minutes of gym class a day. Here's the problem: one gymnasium, even two gymnasiums per school would not be enough space to accommodate the additional use. Consequently, the only way schools could comply with such a law -- short of forcing little kids to run track in the snow -- would be to construct additions with more gymnasiums. There simply is not the money to do that now, particularly at a time when Frankfort has cut money for professional development and text books. Realistically this will hit schools as an unfunded mandate.

Wuchner's proposal of 30 minutes of daily P.E. also fails to take into account the tremendous diversity in student populations across the Commonwealth. Many children in Eastern Jefferson Country, for example, play competitive sports several hours a day most days of the week: travel soccer, U.S.A. swimming, volleyball -- the list goes on. It would be a waste time and resources to force children who play competitive sport into daily P.E. classes; Wuchner should carve out an exemption for these students. Better to give them 30 minutes to read a good book.

To be sure, most children around the state do not have the means to play competitive sports. These children, therefore do need more opportunities for exercise. The chances of them developing a healthy life-style increase if they can find a sport they enjoy. Instead of sticking them in extra gym classes, how about using the money to expand intramural sports after-school? Waive the fee, so that all children can participate regardless of family income. By shifting the physical activity to after-school, moreover, children won't lose the 30 minutes of instructional time.

Wuchner's other proposals do not trouble me. However, the legislation that changed the nutritional content of school cafeteria lunches illustrate that when government attempts to better us, there can be unintended consequences. The school district in which I served saw a marked drop in the number of students who chose to buy the cafeteria lunch and a resulting decrease in revenue for the school. As my children observed, once you take out all the fat, salt and sugar, the cafeteria food didn't taste so good. Many children therefore opted to bring lunch from home -- which gets us back to the role of parents in buying healthy food that children will eat.

Dyche is right that conservatives should not and cannot ignore the obesity of Kentucky's children; we need to propose solutions for this problem that falls within the constitutional authority of the states to address. Good for Wuchner for at least making an attempt, even if it needs some fine-tuning.

We don't object when teachers remind children to wash their hands after they use the restroom because it is a habit necessary for their health. Conservatives need to acknowledge that school plays a role in shaping a child beyond teaching reading, writing and arithmetic. Surely we can come up with a way to teach them a healthy lifestyle, so that they can vote Republican into a ripe old age.

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