COLUMBIA - Chris, 8, landed off a back flip into a grassy yard on Bryant Street in Columbia. He bent down to scoop up a worm with a stick he'd been carrying for a few blocks. His classmates shrieked when he flung it at them. Some students played basketball along the walk, while others quietly talked in pairs. Thirty minutes after the adult volunteer picked them up outside their house, the students arrived at Grant Elementary to begin their school day.
More than 400 students from ten Columbia public elementary schools participate in PedNet's Walking School Bus. The program sends a trained adult 'driver' to walk a set route in order to pick up students at their doors every morning to walk to school. In addition to being a cost-saving mechanism for buses facing rising fuel costs, the program aims at increasing physical activity for children in order to combat the country's growing childhood obesity epidemic.
According to a 2007 National Survey of Children's Health, 31 percent of Missouri's children are considered overweight or obese. With the national average at 31.6%, this puts Missouri as number 23 for the highest incidence of overweight and obese children in the country.
Amid the statistics, statewide legislation in Jefferson City to curb the epidemic has been stagnant even regressive, some critics say.
A bill forcing the state's health department to create school programs to prevent obesity and type-II diabetes didn't get assigned to a committee this session. Another bill requiring fast food restaurants to post caloric value for menu items met the same demise.
A House omnibus education bill approved by the legislature had contained, at one point, provisions that pertained to physical activity. One would have allowed a school to half of the one-hour credit for physical education to be awarded for participating in interscholastic sports or the school's marching band for three years. Currently students in these extra-curricular activities do not receive a physical education credit.
Christi Hopper, Director of Physical Education for Columbia Public Schools, opposes the provision.
Hopper stressed the importance of physical education rather than simply physical activity.
"They're being physically activity which is wonderful," Hopper said. "But they're not being educated on overall fitness and lifetime wellness. They're not meeting the grade level expectations that are written for physical education."
Currently, a health course is required for every ninth-grader, and the school district plans to phase in sixth, seventh and eighth grade students in the next two school years.
For Hopper, awarding credit for sports or the marching band is counterproductive to the P.E. department's mission to increase fitness and combat childhood obesity.
As a result of the obesity epidemic, the P.E. department created a walking program in which students walk 2.25 miles for one class period.
"These are kids who don't like to be active, but we are getting them out walking 2.25 miles every day," Hopper said. "That's a lot more than they would probably do in a regular P.E. class because of their attitude towards fitness."
Classes have filled up, and the walking program has become so popular that teachers have been forced to lead the thirty-plus children around the track rather than around campus.
Walking in a group helps encourage children to exercise, Hopper said.
"If you get a person you're meaning to walk with everyday, you feel obligated to be there," Hopper said.
Hopper said he believes that allowing students to listen to their own music during the walking class is important.
All programs also have children track their personal progress in order to set their own goals throughout the semester.
"They write down where their fitness is when they start, and then they look at what they should be doing and set their own goals," Hopper said. "The next time we do fitness testing they want to know what their best was because they want to beat it."
While students are only required to take one credit of P.E. in high school, Hopper attempts to make students take additional classes through designing a variety of diverse programs including strength training, swimming, team sports and body sculpting.
"By the time they're in high school, they know what they're interested in, and usually when they take something they're interested in, we've found they will continue to take it," Hopper said. "We have many kids that take P.E. all three years because it's something they find that they like and they're interested in."
Despite the P.E. department's efforts, Hopper has seen an increase of obese children firsthand.
"It does seem like we see more obese kids who have difficulty with any kind of activity," Hopper said. "We adjust things like that so they're working on improving."
A large barrier to Hopper's progress is not only getting kids to participate in physical activity, but to keep them active and eating healthy outside of school.
Hopper and many other teachers seek to reach parents through newsletters that feature ways for the whole family to exercise.
"I know a lot of P.E. teachers, especially in the middle and junior high schools, will send home activity calendars that (students) can fill out with their parents," Hopper said.
Activity alone, however, is only part of the issue, Hopper said. What parents feed their children also has a huge effect on the obesity issue.
"Honestly, if a kid is going home to that kind of (bad) food, that's what they're going to eat," she said
Laina Fullum picks up the thread here for Columbia Public Schools. As Director of Nutrition Services, Fullum works to serve students nutritious meals at school.
This year Fullum implemented the Farm to Food initiative. After the passage of the 2008 national Farm Bill repealed language stipulating otherwise, school lunch programs are now allowed to give preference to local farmers. Currently, Columbia is one of a only a handful of Missouri schools that request local farmers grow a variety of produce -- including tomatoes, berries, melons, potatoes and onions -- to serve in Missouri school cafeterias.
Although initially Fullum and her cross-state colleagues had difficulty getting access to the local food, the situation is improving, she said.
"What we've run into is a lack of infrastructure and a lack of supply," Fullum said. "So, what we're currently doing is working with a new vendor to help supply us with local fresh foods and vegetables. We're essentially asking farmers to start to grow what we want them to grow. And that's a big risk for them."
Buying food locally typically means the food will be picked more in season and will therefore taste better, Fullum said.
"We're hoping that that will increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables in children if it tastes better and looks better, and they also know that it comes from Missouri," Fullum said.
But Fullum isn't the first to push more nutritious meal options in Columbia. Her predecessor, Pat Brooks, removed the majority of vending machines from schools and all of the kitchen fryers. No foods are fried on Columbia campuses, Fullum said.
But changes are on the horizon for Columbia and other Missouri school programs. At the end of last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture received a report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies with eight specific nutrition recommendations on how to improve the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs. The USDA is expected to roll-out the recommendations nationwide soon.
The optional recommendations include increasing the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables and whole grains, said Karen Wooten, Director of the State Lunch Program.
Currently, the guidelines are based on meeting a certain amount of nutrients, Wooten said. For example, total fat of any meal must be held to 30 % of daily calories and 10 % for saturated fat.
However, this may begin to change to a number of food groups represented in a particular meal, Wooten said.
"There's been some talk on not having us do the nutrient standard like we have done in the past," Wooten said. "Maybe looking more towards food-based totally for everyone."
Fullum said she believes the USDA's recommendations are sound. For the most part, Columbia is up to par. For example, the district needs to begin to offer more legumes. Fullum plans to implement this as part of her effort to also increase meatless meal options.
A major change will be to begin to force students to take (but not necessarily eat) a fruit at breakfast or a fruit and vegetable at lunch. This is a welcomed suggestion for Fullum, who believes the change has been a long time coming
"If you can eat more fresh fruit and vegetables then you're going to eat less of the other items that you should eat less of," Fullum said. "So really fruits and vegetables can supplant meat and fat and other high-fat snacks that many Americans like to eat."
While the USDA recommendations are large steps forward in combating childhood obesity, currently the state doesn't require school districts to adopt any USDA recommendations. Although some states have chosen to adopt the regulations as law, Wooten said Missouri prefers to rule at the local level.
"It's been discussed, but it's been more like Missouri local control is important," Wooten said. "By leaving it that way, every local district can decide what they want to do, but we can provide guidance."
The regulations are also not mandated because most of the regulations are unfunded at both the national and state level, Fullum said. While Columbia won't have too much trouble, these regulations would be a major overhaul for Missouri schools.
"Yes, President Obama has given additional funding, but it's not near enough what we need in order to make the changes that we would like to make," Fullum said. "I think that it's very sound advice, but we know that it's not going to be funded. And that's hard."
But Fullum is hopeful mid-Missouri is on its way to improving access to nutritious food and reducing the incidence of obesity.
"There's a grassroots effort coming around in Columbia and Boone County," Fullum said. "I think that with our Farmers Markets that we have here in town, we know that we have lots of farmers that are interested in staying busy."
Columbia is on its way to becoming a hub for locally farmed produce and will eventually create its own infrastructure needed to run programs such as the Farm to School initiative, Fullum said.
"I think that eventually this city will become a produce processing area," Fullum said.