Former President Bill Clinton
Combats Diabetes & Obesity at PS 197
It was a day filled with excitement at PS 197, the John B. Russwurm Elementary School in Harlem, as former President Bill Clinton stood on a makeshift stage in the gym to launch an attack on childhood obesity, a major initiative of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a partnership between the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association with critical support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Looking fit and trim after facing his own health problems, Clinton explained to an attentive group of students and teachers that “childhood obesity is a national emergency” and “if the present trend continues, this generation could have a shorter life span than their parents.” In fact, the number of overweight youngsters tripled between 1980 and 2000, putting children at risk for “adult” illnesses such as type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Exacerbating the problem, young people are opting out of exercise to watch TV, play video games, or surf the Internet, and many schools are reducing their physical education programs. The Healthy Schools initiative, which focuses on healthier life styles, hopes to halt the obesity trend by 2010 and end it by 2015. Schools are the chosen venue because, explained Clinton, they are “the most effective ways of reaching our children.” Fifty-four million youngsters attend 123,000 schools nationwide, and six million adults work in schools. Children cannot be expected to make healthy choices on their own, explained Dr. Robert H. Eckel, president of the American Heart Association. “They get mixed messages all around. Schools must set an example.” Studies show, he advised, that good health benefits both the body and the brain, and healthy children do better in their classes.
The proud host of the launch, PS 197 has been chosen as one of 285 schools from 13 states for the first, pilot phase of the program. Additional schools will be added in coming years. “At-risk” schools, those whose socioeconomic and demographic base indicate greatest vulnerability for obesity, will be targeted. Goals include improving the nutritional value of foods served in and out of school, increasing physical activity, classroom lessons on healthy lifestyles, and encouragement of staff wellness. The program will work with food and beverage companies, sporting goods manufacturers, the fitness industry, and health care providers. A “for kids, by kids” movement will empower youngsters to become agents of change. In an example of community support, Sylvia’s, the well-known soul food restaurant in Harlem, with assistance from dietitians and endocrinologists from North General Hospital, is offering cooking lessons for children that will show how to bake rather than fry chicken, cook collard greens without fat, and add black-eyed peas to salads. Speaking to the children, Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, exclaimed, “It is your health and your future which is important to us and the world. We aren’t going to settle for anything less than a healthier generation.”
Former President Clinton made the Healthy Schools launch a memorable day for all. He was generous with his time and happily sat for photos with groups of children neatly decked out in navy and white attire and with teachers grinning from ear to ear. He seemed to relish the contact and also seemed sincere in his desire to inspire change and bring about a healthier generation.#
Applications for new schools wishing to participate in the program will be available July 1 at healthiergeneration.org or 1-800-AHA-USA1.