School Location and the Rise of Childhood Obesity

Posted on: March 31st, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

Written by Renee Kuhlman

Students crossing the street.

Students crossing the street. (Photo: Matt Dalbey)

If you're a parent like me, you've recently fallen in love with Chef Jamie Oliver because of his television show "Food Revolution" and rooted for the new Let's Move program started by First Lady Michele Obama. Why? Because both seek to eliminate childhood obesity within this decade.

Did you know that preservation of older and historic schools also plays a role in addressing this health issue?

Most of the schools constructed today are located far from the students they serve. These distant locations offer fewer opportunities for physical activity. But older and historic schools are usually nestled in their neighborhoods where students can walk and bike to school and play after hours and on the weekends. Lack of regular physical activity has been cited as one of the causes for the rise in childhood obesity.

How big is this problem? Today, approximately nine million children over the age of six are considered obese. And over the past 30 years, rates of childhood obesity have more than tripled among children ages 6 to 11.  The F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies Are Failing in America 2009 report shows that the percentage of obese or overweight children is at or above 30% in 30 states.

In 2009, the American Academy of Pediatrics found that school location impacts children's physical activity levels. "Factors such as [new] school location have played a significant role in the decreased rates of walking to school, and changes in policy may help to increase the number of children who are able to walk to school."

This is why I found myself in sunny San Diego attending the Active Living Research conference in February while the rest of the country experienced yet another massive snowstorm.

In Why Can't Johnny Walk to School: Neighborhood Schools in the Age of Sprawl, the National Trust for Historic Preservation found that minimum acreage standards encourage the closure of walkable, neighborhood schools and the construction of distant schools far from the residents they serve.  We've basically built an environment which makes it hard for our kids to be active.

So with a goal of reversing the childhood obesity epidemic by 2015, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Active Living Research program provided the National Trust with a grant to understand why some states have rejected minimum acreage standards (e.g., South Carolina in 2004 and Minnesota in 2009) and if this policy change results in smaller school sites being chosen.  We're undertaking this work with transportation and land-use researchers, Noreen McDonald and David Salvesen at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

In looking at student travel patterns, researcher Noreen McDonald discovered distance from school to be one of the biggest reasons few students walk or bike to school.  And if "Johnny" and "Jane" can't walk to school, it's harder to get in their daily recommended 60 minutes of physical activity.

Community-centered schools encourage healthier families because children who live near their school can walk or bicycle to school, and can use school facilities to play and exercise when school is out.  But walkable, community-centered schools are increasingly rare. What can preservationists do to help?

The National Trust recently offered a series of policy recommendations in a new report, Helping Johnny Walk to School undertaken through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Preservationists can urge adoption of these changes—at the state and local levels—including changing to a less prescriptive method of determining the size and location of schools.  By reforming policy and practices as outlined in this report, states and localities can encourage both healthier citizens and communities.

Renee Kuhlman is the director of special projects for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Center for State and Local Policy. The National Trust undertook the “Helping Johnny Walk to School: Sustaining Communities Through Smart Policy” project through a cooperative agreement with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.