Editor's note: This story is part of the NET News "Young and Overweight: Fighting Obesity in Nebraska" project. Go to netNebraska.org/youthobesity for more stories and information. A special television program, "Young and Overweight: Fighting Obesity in Nebraska," airs Friday, June 22 at 7 p.m. CT on NET1 and NET-HD, and is also streaming on the project website.
Twice a week during the school year at Western Hills Elementary School in Omaha, kitchen workers fill paper plates with piles of a raw fruit or vegetable. Then student workers don special T-shirts that say "Ask Me About My Job at Western Hills" and deliver the plates of food to each classroom. Sometime during the day, students sample and evaluate the fruit.
Western Hills participates in the USDA's Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program . It's an effort to help kids learn healthy eating habits, and one of many ways Western Hills is targeting youth obesity.
"I feel it's our job, as well, to educate these children about the importance of health and wellness," said Margie Reed-Schmid, the principal at Western Hills.
Reed-Schmid calls youth obesity an epidemic, and a problem she's seen increase in her 23 years as an educator.
"I think you're seeing a lot more children who are obese," Reed-Schmid said. "It's a lot more common. I'm seeing a lot more children who are lethargic, who just don't want to go to PE, who don't want to play outside."
As a result, Reed-Schmid has been making some changes at Western Hills.
"When I first came here, if the kids stayed off the clipboard, if they had a good week, they could come in the office and get a piece of candy," she said. "I got rid of that right away, got rid of the pop machines right away, got rid of having food parties."
But that's not all. Students take "brain breaks," a way to incorporate physical activity like dancing and yoga into the school day. Western Hills has started field trips that include hiking and offers wellness based elective classes like yoga and volleyball. Some classes start recess with a lap on the school's walking track, and recess is scheduled before lunch to maximize activity. Signs and posters advocating healthy eating line every hallway. Reed-Schmid said they work hard to make healthy lifestyle activities and education a regular part of the school day.
"We have such a tight day, and our teachers really are teaching bell-to-bell with all of the state standards," Reed-Schmid said. "So we try to kind of incorporate it into everything we do. It naturally fits into the research piece and into the writing piece."
Much of the task of reducing youth obesity has fallen on schools.
"The reason the schools are such a good place to do things is that's where the kids are," said Dr. Bob Rauner, chair of the public health committee of the Nebraska Medical Association. "If you're going to educate children, where better to educate them than in the schools where they all happen to be. They spend half of their waking hours during the school day in that school environment, so you can reach large numbers."
"Most of the studies out there that are successful are school-based efforts," Rauner added. "So the reason we focus on the schools is just because that's the most efficient means of doing this, and that's where the evidence leads us to put our efforts first."
Dr. Jennifer Huberty is an associate professor of health, physical education and recreation at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Huberty works with schools and trains teachers to help them get the most out of what she said is limited time for physical activity.
"At schools, there needs to be a policy that staff are trained with skills related to physical activity," Huberty said. "There needs to be a policy that says all kids are required to get an hour of physical activity, just like they're required not to chew gum."
Western Hills principal Reed-Schmid knows it will take a lot of work to reverse the youth obesity trend - especially at her school, where a majority of the students come from low socioeconomic situations where youth obesity is more common. But she sees little victories coming from efforts like the Fresh Fruits and Vegetables program.
"Parents are telling me now that when they go to the grocery stores with their children, they're asking them for blackberries over candy, which I'm thrilled about. Because that's part of what the program is intended to do, is educate them on what's available," Reed-Schmid said. "I think little by little, it's spreading."