As a Columbia pediatrician, Henri Merrick regularly sees young patients who are significantly overweight. It's a trend she started noticing several years ago, and the weights of school-aged children began to cause her great concern.
So three years ago, she started a diet program at her practice. If a child had a body mass index in the 84th percentile, she put them on a diet: no sugar, lots of water and healthier foods.
"Believe it or not, children are coming back in one month or two, and they're losing one pound, five pounds — I don't care what it is. Even if they're not losing weight, they're not gaining weight," she said. "These children were gaining four or five pounds every time I would see them."
Merrick said she takes the health of children to heart, and that was why she went before the Board of Education on April 11 to testify on the proposed changes to the Howard County School System's health and wellness policy.
Nearly 40 people spoke out on the policy, saying the changes don't do enough to encourage healthy lifestyles among students. Specifically, they said, more emphasis needs to be placed on increasing physical activity, decreasing unhealthy food options and establishing a set of nutritional guidelines for the policy.
"The children come to school to get wisdom and to get guidance," Merrick said. "If the school says, 'Do it,' they're going to do it."
The hearing at the Board of Education meeting drew more than 150 parents, citizens and students, and about 100 gathered outside the Department of Education at a rally before the hearing, organized by People Acting Together in Howard County (PATH), to demand a better policy. The board is expected to vote on the policy May 9, and members want to hold a public work session to address the policy's issues. That work session has not yet been scheduled.
Critics said the school system can and should be doing better for the students.
"We are raising the first generation of children whose life expectancy is less than their parents," said the Rev. Robert Turner, pastor at St. John Baptist Church in Columbia and co-chair of PATH, a group of 15 local faith-based organizations. "For the first time in human history, we're going backward.
"Children's environment is the lead determiner of their health. Place the kids where junk food is readily available, the outcome will be unhealthy children. We don't just want smart children, we want healthy children."
At the rally, Turner led a simple call for action.
"What do we want?" he called out.
"Healthy children," the crowd shouted.
"When do we want it?" Turner prompted.
"Now," they responded.
'A clear priority'
School system staff first presented changes to the health and wellness policy last month. About a third of the people who sat on the policy committee quickly issued a statement saying the changes fell short of creating a world-class policy befitting a world-class school system. The recommendations put together by the committee would have made the policy world-class, members said, but those recommendations failed to make it into the proposal issued by Superintendent Renee Foose and central office staff.
When the changes were presented in March, Katrina Burton, the school system's director of business and finance and co-chair of the committee said, "The suggestions are not moving forward at this time either due to fiscal constraints, or the school system's desire to have a balance between these priorities among other priorities, including academic instructional programs."
While there are bright spots to the proposed policy, like breakfast made available for every student at every school and teachers being encouraged to incorporate physical activity into classroom lessons, many said a stronger emphasis needs be placed on physical education and recess.
"There are too many priorities and too many loopholes," said Andrea LeWinter, the wellness chair for the PTA Council of Howard County. "If health is not a clear priority at each school, the goal will not be met, and there will be no recourse for parents."
A study conducted by the Yale University Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity on behalf of the Horizon Foundation, a local nonprofit dedicated to health in Howard County, also found that if the revisions were adopted, the school system's policy would rank as only average compared to others across the country.
Board members, too, expressed concern over the changes, specifically when it comes to nutritional guidelines, which have not been written because the school system wants to hire a dietitian.
"I'm struggling to understand why daily, in our cafeterias, my children are given the option of purchasing snacks and desserts (through the a la carte options) before they even finish their meals," said Amy Churilla, PTA president at Running Brook Elementary School. "I have been at school to eat lunch with my children, and I see children abandon their meals, throw away untouched fruit as they unwrap a freshly purchased ice cream bar."
There's also concern about vending machines. Although student-accessible vending machines are only in high schools, and cannot be used during the school day, they are often the source of food for students staying after school for extracurricular activities. After-school students also have the option of purchasing food from the booster-run stores in every high school, but those too include unhealthy options, said students who testified at the hearing.
PTA parents who spoke at the hearing talked about restricting what can be sold by boosters at after-school events, such as athletic events. Such sales of pizza and sugary drinks can be a major fundraiser for the groups, parents said. Those restrictions, plus a lack of nutritional guidelines, are why the PTA Council is not supporting the proposal.
"A better way to go about this is to encourage groups to offer more healthy selections at our events, not mandate what food and beverages we can and cannot sell," said council president Christina Delmont-Small.