Preventing Childhood Obesity

According to the US Surgeon General, two-thirds of adults and nearly one in three children are overweight or obese. Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. The condition limits many students’ ability to excel in school, in part because it can result in social and psychological problems such as low self-esteem. A serious problem is that overweight children are often bullied and suffer from its effects.

Being seriously overweight can also affect a child’s health, now and in the future. Immediate health effects can include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, bone and joint problems, and sleep apnea. Young people who are obese are likely to be obese as adults and be more at risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer, and osteoarthritis. 

Overweight and obesity and their associated health problems have a significant economic impact on the U.S. economy. Obesity has been a major factor in the rising cost of medical care, and now accounts for an estimated 21 percent of medical spending. As a substantial proportion of the costs are paid through Medicare and Medicaid, fewer public dollars are available for education and other national priorities.

Healthy lifestyle habits, including healthy eating and physical activity, can lower the risk of becoming obese and developing related diseases. Although the dietary and physical activity behaviors of children and adolescents are influenced by many sectors of society, schools play a particularly critical role. Within an environment where healthy choices are easy to make, schools can help teach young people to take responsibility for their own lifelong health.

Legal Context: Federal Wellness Policy Requirement

The federal government requires that every local educational agency that participates in a federal school meal program have a school wellness policy. As outlined in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the policy needs to include “goals for nutrition promotion and education, physical activity, and other school-based activities that promote student wellness,” and nutrition guidelines that “promote student health and reduce childhood obesity” for all foods available at school. 

The US Department of Agriculture offers guidance on implementing the law. NSBA participated in developing Model School Wellness Policies by a coalition of national organizations, and has published several articles on the topic (see resource list at the bottom of this page). Action for Healthy Kids offers a useful Wellness Policy Tool that leads the user through a policy development process. Several school boards associations and state education agencies also provide written guidance and hands-on technical assistance.

Policy Issue: Health as a District Goal

Districts and school staff members might not consider a locally developed wellness policy to be a serious priority unless it is officially designated as a mission of the school district.

School board members can promote the inclusion of lifelong wellness as a major instructional goal in the district’s vision and mission statements, and in individual school improvement plans, accompanied by achievable objectives and measures of accountability.

School board members can broaden the meaning of “wellness” beyond nutrition and physical activity to include such topics as social and emotional health, staff wellness, school health services, etc.

School board members can ensure that the administrative unit or staff member who is tasked with ensuring that schools are complying with the local wellness policies have the backing and support necessary to enforce the implementation of the policies’ provisions.

School board members can actively promote wellness goals by sponsoring and personally participating in health-related school activities and events.

Policy Issue: Community Oversight

The federal law includes a requirement that “the local educational agency permit parents, students, representatives of the school food authority, teachers of physical education, school health professionals, the school board, school administrators, and the general public to participate in the development, implementation, and periodic review and update of the local school wellness policy.” Congress intended that school districts be accountable to the local community, not to the state or federal government.

School board members can take the lead on ensuring that a broad range of dedicated and knowledge members comprise the wellness policy committee. Indeed, it is logical for a school board member to chair the committee and serve as its liaison to the board as a whole. The committee should be continuously active at monitoring implementation of the policy, proposing recommendations for improvement, and presenting progress reports to the community.

Policy Issue: Proven Policies and Practices

Policies might be shelved if developed in a haphazard way or simply copied from another policy developed elsewhere. Sometimes people propose a program or practice that sounds like a good idea, but which later turns out to be unworkable. Fortunately education leaders can turn to a growing body of research- and evidence-based proven practices to promote healthy eating at school, lifelong physical activity, and school staff wellness.

School board members can encourage the use of a research-based assessment tool to identify needs and potential solutions, and then ensure that policies, programs, and practices are derived from credible sources and based on evidence of effectiveness. The National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) offers several policy guides developed in collaboration with NSBA. Other sources of assessment tools and implementation guides designed specifically for schools are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, Action for Healthy Kids, ASCDFuel Up to Play 60 (an initiative of the National Dairy Council and the National Football League), and the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

Policy Issue: Public Recognition of Success

Positive stories in the local media can help motivate students, staff, and family members to promote school improvements.

School board members can
encourage local schools to apply for a national recognition program that rewards making improvements to the school environment. One opportunity is the HealthierUS School Challenge, a voluntary certification initiative of the US Department of Agriculture. Another is offered through the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. Many schools find that applying for recognition is a valuable learning process that helps their school wellness team focus on areas needing improvement.

Advocacy Opportunities

School board members can contact their state school boards association to learn about and become involved with obesity prevention initiatives being pursued at the state level. To become involved at the national level, explore the opportunities at the NSBA Advocacy website.

School board members can join one of the many other organizations involved with advocating for laws and policies to help prevent childhood obesity. Nationwide organizations with local reach include the Let's Move campaign, the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association, the Childrens Defense, and the Be Our Voice campaign. Organizations working with specific communities include the NAACP, Salud America! and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF).


Looking for more information? See what’s Inside Preventing Childhood Obesity on the right.

Additional Resources

Preventing Childhood Obesity
PDF of this webpage

Leadership in Action: Policymakers Addressing Childhood Obesity through Collaboration and Policy Change
Recording and supporting documents of an NSBA webcast in December 2009

Health and Leadership
American School Board Journal Special Report, Feb. 2009

Health and Wellness
Online collection of health and wellness articles from the American School Board Journal

The San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative: A Model for Collaboration and Comprehensive Efforts
NSBA publication, 2009 (PDF)

California School Boards Association (CSBA) Student Wellness website

Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB) Weighing Healthier Options website

Iowa Association of School Boards (IASB) Wellness Policy and Support Materials website

Missouri School Boards’ Association (MSBA) District Wellness Program website

Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB) Wellness Policy website

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Childhood Obesity Weekly Policy Alert
Sign up to receive news and local, state, and federal government information and research on a weekly basis.

Connect With NSBA