Truancy and Obesity: Two Issues of Equity

by Dana Woldow on April 15, 2009

Two articles caught my attention recently. One by Chronicle education reporter Jill Tucker discussed a report which indicated that if the middle and high school dropout rate were cut in half, San Francisco would save money and see less crime. There are many reasons why students drop out – they find school boring or irrelevant, they get behind in their work and fear they will never catch up, there is no role model in the family to show them the value of graduating and going on to college, they feel alienated at school and believe no one there cares if they show up or not, or maybe they are too stressed with an afterschool job, or a chaotic home life, and it all just gets to be too much for them.

Among the strategies the San Francisco Unified School District now uses to try to address this dropout issue are better teacher training to engage students more, offering career academies so students see how what they learn can lead to jobs in the real world, placing a psychologist or social worker at every school, and more professional development directed toward creating an environment where every child knows that there is at least one adult at school who cares whether or not he comes to school each day.

Another aspect is home visits to families of chronic truants to talk with the parent or guardian about the situation. Dr. Patricia Gray, principal at Balboa High School, does these frequently, and the Mayor has even invited himself along from time to time. It would be easy to pull out that one element of what the district is doing to address dropouts and truancy, and say “Having Gavin Newsom and the Principal show up at the house is not going to keep a kid from being truant or dropping out.”

Maybe it won’t – maybe just that one thing won’t – but it is not just that one thing that the school district is doing; they are attempting to change the entire school environment, and that is just one aspect of the change. No, the home visit alone may not turn things around for a truant student, but does that mean that, because it is not the silver bullet, it shouldn’t be done? No one of those strategies alone will solve truancy; the hope is that all of those things taken together, and done every day over time, will make a change.

The second article which caught my attention was a short piece mentioning a taco truck which continues to park outside a city high school in violation of a 2007 ordinance banning such trucks from parking within 1500 feet of public middle and high schools. The ordinance was passed unanimously by the Board of Supervisors to support the school district’s efforts to create a healthy food environment in and around city schools, and try to address a rising epidemic of child obesity.

Although dozens of other communities in California also have ordinances keeping mobile food vendors away from schools, some have questioned whether this will do anything at all to help fight obesity. There is a reason why the SFUSD wants to keep vending trucks away from schools, and it comes down to taking the same kind of approach as is now being tried with addressing truancy and the dropout rate.

There is no one cause of obesity, just as there is no one cause of truancy. It is a variety of things – students making poor food choices, not knowing what is a healthy food and what isn’t, not having access to fresh fruits and vegetables in their neighborhoods, not having safe places to walk or ride a bike or play basketball, and not having adequate access to healthcare. Then there is the constant easy access to unhealthy foods in our society, along with all of the messages telling us to eat more than we need; TV ads trumpet “It’s good to be full” while the movie theater popcorn vendor asks “Would you like the extra large for just 25 cents more?” Advertising messages like “Have a Coke and a smile”, “Life tastes good”, and “You can’t beat the feeling” equate happiness with consuming empty calories.

So the fight against obesity has to be fought on many different levels, and with many different weapons. There needs to be more education for both students and their families about how to make healthy choices when they shop, when they cook, and when they eat away from home. There needs to be better access to fresh fruits and vegetables in low income neighborhoods, so that it becomes as easy to buy spinach and mangoes and tomatoes as it is to buy soda and chips. Crime rates need to come down so that kids feel safe going outside to get some exercise. Low income families need better access to health care right in their own neighborhoods, so that getting to see a doctor is not something reserved for trips to the emergency room.

And there needs to be an emphasis on healthy eating and making healthy food choices in and around our schools, because that is where our kids spend such a large part of their lives. They should not be surrounded by all of those “Eat more” and “Soda makes you happy” messages while they are at school, and that includes not looking out the window during health class and seeing a bunch of guys scarfing down giant burritos and sodas from a truck parked 5 feet from the schoolyard fence.

Both obesity and truancy disproportionately affect low income students of color, making both issues about equity. There is no one silver bullet that will prevent obesity, just as there is no one silver bullet that will fix the dropout problem, but does that mean because no one individual thing alone will fix the problem, we should not do each individual thing? The truck ordinance is one strategy in the move to create healthy eating environments in and around schools, and it is a very important part of that plan. To ridicule it because this one thing alone can’t stop an epidemic which has been years in the making, and has multiple causes, does an injustice to the students who suffer the consequences of living in a food environment which encourages unhealthy choices and overconsumption of fat, sugar, and calories.

With health experts predicting that the current generation of young people will be the first in modern history to live shorter life spans than their parents entirely due to the effects of obesity and related disorders like type 2 diabetes and heart disease, how can we as adults possibly sit by and not do everything we possibly can to help reverse those odds?

Dana Woldow is co-chair of the SFUSD Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee, and is the parent of two San Francisco public school graduates and one current SFUSD student.

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