As obesity continues to threaten the health of young students nationwide, local school systems are exploring options to combat the problem.
Nearly 43 percent of public school students in Loudon County were overweight or obese in the 2011-12 school year, according to the Tennessee Department of Education.
Lenoir City Schools Coordinated School Health Coordinator Mary Harding said while the district offers a variety of healthy options to hopefully slash that rate, curbing obesity ultimately lies with parents and the economy.
"Cheap food is always the worst food you can buy and convenience food, like if you look at the price of milk versus buying soda it's outrageous," Harding said. "(Soft drinks are) more economical for families in these hard times. They are trying to put food on the table and sometimes they are not always buying the freshest or the best foods available.
"And our community has a lot of hard-working families where everyone is working a lot, so we still have a lot of latchkey kids and kids who don't get an opportunity to get out and play a lot," Harding said, "so I think that has contributed somewhat to that."
Harding said Lenoir City's efforts have shifted to educating parents. Lenoir City Elementary School offers Family Literacy/Healthy Lifestyles Night, where students and their families learn tips on academics and healthy eating.
"Everyone is all worried about Common Core and all the new standards that are coming out, but if a child is healthy they will be more likely to be ready to learn, so that's kind of our focus now," she said.
Loudon County Schools Health Coordinator Melisa Fuhrmeister believes her district is also making improvements.
"We have lowered our obesity rates, not significantly, but it's something that's not going to happen overnight, so it is going to take time to see that," Fuhrmeister said. "Again, I feel like that we have made strides over the years, but it can always be lower. We would like to see it lower."
School systems are federally mandated this year to make healthy improvements to breakfast menus, such as low fat milk, whole grain bread and calorie specifications. Last year, lunch menus were overhauled to include more fruits and vegetables, Kay Bailey, Lenoir City Schools food services supervisor, said.
While the overhaul was difficult, Bailey believes the change will have an impact.
"Overall, I think the kids have been positive about it. It's been an education process to explain to them you have to take this. You can have this, but you have to take this too," Bailey said. "But again we try to work with their preferences and put things out there that they like that still stays within the guidelines, and we really haven't had any trouble with the fruit component. The kids love fruit."
Bailey said schools will be mandated to implement sodium restrictions next year.
"There has been a lot of discussion about American sodium intake overall, and what pediatricians are seeing now are children coming in at very early ages with health problems that you don't usually see until people are adults," she said. "Some of that is hypertension, high blood pressure and the medical community links that back to sodium intake, so they are wanting to reduce that to help see if they can lower that incidence in the children.
"No food is bad," Bailey said. "No food is evil, but you have to use common sense and moderation in what you eat."
The percentage of overweight/obese students was higher among rural counties than metro counties at 39.8 percent versus 35.4 percent in the 2011-12 school year, according to the Department of Education. Statewide, the prevalence of overweight/obesity decreased in 2011-12 to 38.6 percent from 41.1 percent in 2007-08.
"I would really like to see them down a lot. If we could cut that in half we would be more in line with just the state numbers," Harding said of Lenoir City's rates.
"I'm pleased that in spite of the economy that our rates haven't gone up.
"Would I love to see them come down? Absolutely, and they need to come down," she said. "The good part is we haven't gotten worse, and I'm hoping with the introduction of programs like one of our literacy nights we did on gardening — so I hope that sparks an interest in people to plant container gardens and start to enjoy the benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables."
Like Lenoir City, Loudon County Schools is implementing a morning exercise program, Power Up Your School, to link Common Core academics with exercise.
"Research shows by being physically active in the morning it stimulates the brain to be able to learn," Fuhrmeister said, adding that the district has the Covenant Kids Run and Girls on the Run programs.
The district also employs a part-time health educator to talk to elementary school students about nutrition and healthy lifestyles.
Fuhrmeister and Harding also promoted PLAYLoudon, a community events and resources website that highlights different healthy activities in Loudon County.
"We also have a PLAYLoudon Twitter page and we post stuff pretty much daily related to health and physical activity on that," Fuhrmeister said. "We are trying to use technology to reach people. We are also trying to do things within the schools, before and after school activities. Trying not to interrupt academic time can be challenging and so we are trying to find creative ways to influence students and families in the community."