Virginia education and health officials are considering several measures aimed at helping children be trim and fit, including issuing fitness report cards for students and setting nutritional standards for food available at schools, including in vending machines.
The draft recommendations, released this week by a joint committee of the state's Board of Education and Board of Health, represent the latest attempt to keep closer tabs not only on what students eat but also on how they exercise and how often. That scrutiny might not thrill children, but health experts say there is too much at stake not to act.
Just over 15 percent of adolescents are obese, nearly triple the number in 1980, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. In a 2000 study in Virginia, 17 percent of fourth-graders at 15 schools were found to be overweight.
Many of the Virginia committee's draft recommendations focus on ways to inform students about nutrition and health, measures that go a long way toward helping children who are overweight, said Susan L. Genovese, a member of the Board of Education and chairman of the committee studying ways to make children healthier. "We're really trying to educate children on healthy choice," she said.
Genovese cited the report cards as a way to keep parents informed. The reports would be issued annually and would rate a student's endurance, strength, flexibility and body mass index, a widely used measure of weight relative to height. Similar report cards have been used in other school systems across the country.
Committee members said they knew some parents would recoil at the prospect of the report cards, possibly seeing them as intrusive. But the committee members insisted on the value of evaluation.
"This is just kind of another way to . . . let parents know where their children stand," Genovese said. "It's up to the parents what they do with it."
Other draft recommendations encourage schools to provide daily physical education, strive for 30 minutes of daily recess and avoid taking recess away as a disciplinary measure. Teachers are urged not to use food to reward students, and parents are urged to avoid fundraisers involving food that does not meet nutritional standards.
It remains unclear which recommendations the committee will propose as guidelines and which it will propose as mandates when it finishes its work in the fall.
Not all efforts to curb the number of overweight children have been accepted. Earlier this year, several bills in Maryland aimed at improving children's health -- including one that would have required all students to have five hours of physical education per week -- never made it past various legislative committees.
But alarm over childhood health remains widespread. School systems have taken some steps to improve students' health. Loudoun County schools are among many that have equipped vending machines with timers that prevent sodas and snacks from being dispensed during the school day. Through a state program, Arlington County schools this year purchased more than 9,000 pedometers, which were lent to students, who recorded their progress based on the number of steps they took each day.
State officials are trying to synthesize the measures already taken across the commonwealth. But some health experts are leery of states that invest so much money and effort without more research.
"We've got to have some pretty good evidence of what works and what doesn't. Otherwise, it's a huge experiment for the state," said Judith S. Stern, vice president of the American Obesity Association and a professor of nutrition and internal medicine at the University of California at Davis. "We owe it to our kids to get the science right."
Stern said school systems might make the mistake of banning soft drinks but allowing sugar-sweetened juices, for example. If children drink enough of those juices, it's possible they will take in more calories than they would have drinking soda.
Also, Stern said, simply adding time for physical education or recess isn't a cure.
"I would like to see daily physical activity for K-12, and meaningful -- not taught by English teachers who toss a ball on an asphalt court, but professionals," she said.
State officials said they understand the trade-offs sometimes involved in nutrition and exercise. Scott Goodman, a Board of Education member who is helping to draft the recommendations, said he is particularly concerned about the nutritional value of school meals.
"It doesn't do a whole lot of good to cut off candy bars if you're serving food with high sugar content in the cafeteria," he said.
Stern added that getting it right could have far-reaching effects. Studies have shown healthier children perform better academically.
"You want your kid to be healthy," she said. "We're playing for keeps here."