ANNAPOLIS – Gwendolyn Britt, a Democratic state senator from Prince George’s County, often walks by a collage of drawings in a tunnel leading from the State House to her office.
At the bottom of the collage, a Baltimore Stadium School art class project titled “If I could change one thing,” is a drawing by eighth-grader Kevin Lewis. It’s a blacktop basketball halfcourt quoting a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention program:
“Get out. Go play. It’s what you do.”
Kevin’s drawing, amid the increasing childhood obesity crisis, inspired Britt to introduce bills to reform students’ nutrition and exercise habits. Her proposals are one part of the legislative effort to reform Maryland schools’ influence on student health.
“We have a growing problem among children that impacts us as taxpayers,” said Britt, who sits on the Senate Health, Education and Environmental Affairs Committee. But “there’s been little action…We have to take some stronger measures.”
The number of obese Americans ages 6-11 has tripled in the last 30 years, according to the Institute of Medicine.
The CDC named obesity the nation’s second biggest cause of premature death — behind only tobacco use.
Health groups attribute those trends primarily to sedentary lifestyles without adequate exercise and poor eating habits.
Several lawmakers said Maryland schools have contributed to those factors by allowing companies to install vending machines stocked with junk food and sacrificing physical education time.
Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, remembers a day in the late 1980s when he saw his history students at Central High School devouring soda and candy before a morning class. When Pinsky questioned the school’s principal, he was told the school needed the revenue.
“Why don’t we just go out and sell them drugs?” Pinsky replied.
Pinsky, a county teacher for 20 years, was kidding, but his point was serious: Selling junk food to students harms their health — just like marijuana and cocaine.
Pinsky introduced bills in each of the last four years to improve school nutrition. Last year, his bill to turn off certain vending machines until the end of the school day was defeated on the Senate floor.
This year Pinsky, Britt and Delegate Robert Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, introduced similar school nutrition bills.
Those bills may not be necessary, though. The State Department of Education will vote Feb. 22 whether to recommend elementary and middle schools follow new nutritional standards for food and drinks.
The measures encourage schools to sell only cafeteria foods with maximums of 9 grams of fat, 2 grams of saturated fat and 15 grams of sugar, and to prohibit selling junk food in vending machines until the end of school (currently schools may turn those machines on after the latest lunch period).
The guidelines would start with the 2006-2007 school year. All 24 state school superintendents support the changes, said Bill Reinhard, a department spokesperson.
Reinhard said Maryland schools have recognized it is time to change their food options.
Pinsky, who said he may drop his bill if the department of education measure passes, said this is a sign Maryland schools are finally serious about fixing students’ health.
“It was getting more embarrassing,” he said, “for people in the education community to defend serving junk food.”
But changing nutritional standards in schools is only a first step, Pinsky and Britt said. Exercise is another one.
A 2003 CDC study revealed that 22.6 percent of Americans ages 9-13 do not participate in any leisure physical activity.
Many of them aren’t exercising at school, either. According to the National Association of Sports and Physical Education, the percentage of American schoolchildren attending physical education classes daily declined from 41.6 to 28.4 between 1991 and 2003.
Maryland schools have cut P.E. time, Reinhard said, to focus on teaching academics.
Britt has introduced a bill to make Maryland schools adopt NASPE recommendations for physical education — ranging from at least two-and-a-half hours weekly for elementary school students to nearly four for high school students, every semester, by 2010.
Britt’s bill also calls for a new state director of physical education to help devise local P.E. programs.
Delegate Joan Stern, D-Montgomery, sponsored that measure in the House. At a Senate health committee hearing Wednesday, Stern said childhood obesity costs the state $1.5 billion annually in health care money, and spending money now to counter the problems would save money in the long run.
“We waited many years to address the tobacco crisis,” Stern said. “We can’t afford to wait many years before we address the obesity crisis.
“Prevention is the key. Not treatment.”
Colleen Seremet, the state’s superintendent for instruction, questioned why the state, instead of the schools, must act and noted that schools do not have the time and funds to follow NASPE’s content standards.
“It’s a very good thing for kids to have physical education for 30 minutes a day or 45 minutes a day, but in the current system,” Seremet said, with a high emphasis on academics, “we’re quickly running out of minutes.”
Delegate Anne Healey, D-Prince George’s, has another idea. She introduced a bill to reassign a school official in each county to oversee school health services — enforcing state and local health guidelines and communicating with parents.
“We need to pay attention to this aspect of life in schools,” Healey said.
John Woolums, director of government relations for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, said local school boards can and should administer school health issues — not state laws.
“No one knows better how to regulate what happens on school grounds than your local boards of education,” Woolums said. “We don’t need the General Assembly to do this.”
Schools may need help to change student attitudes, though.
On the Stadium School’s collage, just to the left of Kevin’s basketball court drawing is another by seventh-grader Kendra Ferguson of a soda, fries and a burger.
If she could change one thing, Kendra said, she’d “leave school to go to McDonald’s.”
Quoting a McDonald’s jingle, she added: “Bada, Bada, ba, I’m lovin’ it.”