WASHINGTON – Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has a message for Americans: Quit digging your grave with a knife and fork.
Huckabee shed more than 100 pounds after being diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes in 2003. He has taken his personal health kick to the next level by running marathons and writing books like "Quit Digging Your Grave With A Knife And Fork."
He is also using his success story to wage war on junk food in public schools in hopes of targeting childhood obesity rates. Other states, under pressure to encourage healthier eating habits for children, are developing similar school programs.
But some critics argue that it’s not the state or federal government’s job to regulate food and beverages in public schools. School boards and communities are more in tune with the needs of their schools, said Radley Balko, a CATO Institute policy analyst.
“I don’t think the federal government has any business telling them what to do,” Balko said. “I think it should be done at the local level.”
Nearly 15 percent of children ranging from ages 6 to 19 are obese, according to the American Obesity Association. Nationally, nine out of 10 public schools sold soda, chips and candy in school year 2003-2004, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Huckabee, who is retiring in January after 10 years as governor, put the issue at the top of his to-do list, and Arkansas schools removed high-calorie snacks and beverages from vending machines and cafeterias and replaced them with juice, milk and healthy foods.
Following his lead, the state Legislature required public school students' weights to be assessed using the BMI, or Body Mass Index, scale. It also formed an advisory panel to institute a campaign to target rising childhood obesity rates in the state.
BMI is a ratio of height and weight, identifying healthy or unhealthy levels through percentiles. Percentiles are used to categorize children for being overweight, at risk for overweight, healthy or underweight, based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Child Nutrition and Reauthorization Act set a BMI measurement to identify overweight and obesity levels. Overweight falls in the greater than or equal to 95th percentile, at risk for overweight falls between 85th and less than 95th percentile, healthy falls between 5th and less than 85th percentile and underweight is less than 5th percentile. Results are confidentially mailed home to parents.
The state recently released its third annual assessment of childhood and adolescent obesity. Huckabee touted the results as evidence that the efforts have halted the upward trend of childhood obesity in the state.
“We have stopped the locomotive train of childhood obesity in its tracks," Huckabee said. "Now it’s time to turn the train around and move full speed ahead to healthier living.”
But Balko said Arkansas’ plan for sending BMI report cards home to parents may cause more harm than good by contributing to self-esteem issues.
“It’s going to do damage to a kid’s self-esteem,” Balko said. “You may be actually causing more damage.”
A Huckabee spokesman said the governor decided to get involved after realizing the health impacts of obesity and the amount of money being spent on treatments related to diseases linked to obesity.
“From a political standpoint and as chief executive officer of the state, the amount of Medicaid money that is spent is astronomical,” said spokeswoman Alice Stewart. “Instead of treating the snake bites, he thinks it’s time to go after the snakes.”
The involvement of government helps give attention to the issue and make progress, said Carole Garner, assistant professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
“It seems like everyone is moving forward,” Garner said.
The issue has also caught the attention of congressional leaders. The Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act of 2006, a bipartisan bill backed by Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., among others, would revise how the government defines "food of minimal nutritional value." The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry where it stalled before Congress recessed.
The legislation would update the definition to current nutrition science to restrict junk food in schools and protect federal dollars in the national school lunch and breakfast programs. The measure is awaiting consideration in the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.
“This needs to be something that government on all levels needs to address,” said Sharon Huang, a spokeswoman for Parents Action for Children, a nonpartisan and nonprofit group that promotes children’s issues and supports the federal legislation.
But the legislation faces some hurdles. From a revenue standpoint, some schools could lose out because they get a percentage of the sales. Food and beverage industry representatives add that legislation to remove soft drinks from schools is not necessary
"Parents, teachers, government, health officials and industry must all work together to help our nation's children grow up healthier," said Tracey Halliday, a spokeswoman for the American Beverage Association, which represents the nation's non-alcoholic refreshment beverage industry.
The beverage association teamed up with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation — a joint initiative of the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association — to form guidelines to provide healthier alternatives to soda and high-calorie drinks in schools.
In the May 2006 agreement, the nation's largest beverage distributors agreed to sell only water, unsweetened juice and low-fat milk in elementary and middle schools. High schools can sell beverages, including soda, that offer less than 10 calories per serving and juice, sports drinks and low-fat milk, according to the agreement.
Most schools will see the changes by the 2008-2009 school year.
Food Report Card Targets States
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group, recently released a report card on what nutrition policies are set in schools for foods sold outside of school meals such as in school stores, à la carte lines and vending machines.
Twenty-three states received an "F" for not having policies for those foods and there is a lot of room for improvement, said Joy Johanson, a senior policy associate at the center.
"We think that the states that have set policies definitely provide one helpful component to the solution of childhood obesity," Johanson said.
Balko said schools should be educating students, not worrying about their food choices.
“I’m not sure it’s the job of schools to keep kids fit,” Balko said.