COLUMBIA — You can get to Grant Elementary School the quick way — usually in a car — or the long way.
Here's the long way:
An adult volunteer starts 30 minutes early to collect kids waiting in front of their doors with books and backpacks.
Some of them play basketball along the walk, others talk quietly in pairs.
One boy lands a back flip into a grassy yard and scoops up a worm with a stick he's been carrying for a few blocks. He flings it at his classmates. They shriek.
The students wind their way through the neighborhood until they reach the school yard shortly before the bell rings.
More than 400 students from 10 Columbia public elementary schools participate in this Walking School Bus program, sponsored by the PedNet Coalition. A trained adult walks a set route each morning, picking up kids along the way and guiding them to school.
In addition to cutting costs for buses facing rising fuel expenses, the Walking School Bus is designed to increase physical activity for children in order to combat the country's growing childhood obesity epidemic.
According to the 2007 National Survey of Children's Health, 31 percent of Missouri's children are considered overweight or obese. Missouri ranks near the middle, 27th, in the number of overweight and obese children.
As legislative efforts to address the epidemic falter in Jefferson City, Columbia's schools have already started to make some changes on a more local level.
In the General Assembly
Statewide legislation in Jefferson City to curb the epidemic has been stagnant — even regressive, some critics say.
A bill forcing the state Board of Education to create school programs to prevent obesity and Type 2 diabetes didn't get out of its committee this session. Another bill requiring fast food restaurants to post caloric value for menu items met the same fate.
A House omnibus education bill approved by the legislature contained, at one point, provisions that pertained to physical activity.
One would have allowed a school to award half of the one-hour credit requirement for physical education to students who participate in interscholastic sports or the school's marching band for three years. Currently, students in these extra-curricular activities do not receive a physical education credit.
Christi Hopper, director of physical education for Columbia Public Schools, opposed the provision.
She stressed the importance of physical education to increase fitness and combat childhood obesity rather than simply physical activity.
"They're being physically active, which is wonderful, but they're not being educated on overall fitness and lifetime wellness," Hopper said. "They're not meeting the grade-level expectations that are written for physical education."
Currently, a health course is required for every ninth-grade student in Columbia, and the district plans to phase in a requirement for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students within the next two school years.
Physical education courses
In response to the high number of obese and overweight children, the district created a fitness walking class in which students walk 2.25 miles during one class period.
"These are kids who don't like to be active, but we are getting them out walking 2.25 miles every day," Hopper said. "That's a lot more than they would probably do in a regular P.E. class because of their attitude toward fitness."
Walking in a group helps encourage children to exercise, Hopper said.
"If you get a person you're meaning to walk with every day, you feel obligated to be there," she said.
Hopper said she believes that allowing students to listen to their own music during the walking class is important.
These programs also have children track their personal progress in order to set their own goals throughout the semester.
"They write down where their fitness is when they start, and then they look at what they should be doing and set their own goals," Hopper said. "The next time we do fitness testing they want to know what their best was because they want to beat it."
While students are only required to take one credit of P.E. in high school, she attempts to encourage students to take additional classes by building a variety of diverse programs including strength training, swimming, team sports and body sculpting.
"By the time they're in high school, they know what they're interested in, and usually when they take something they're interested in, we've found they will continue to take it," Hopper said. "We have many kids that take P.E. all three years because it's something they find they like and they're interested in."
Despite the physical education department's efforts, Hopper has seen an increase of obese children.
"It does seem like we see more obese kids who have difficulty with any kind of activity," Hopper said. "We adjust things like that so they're working on improving."
Eating well in and out of school
A significant barrier to progress is not only getting kids to participate in physical activity, but keeping them active and eating healthy outside of school.
Hopper and many other teachers seek to reach parents through newsletters that include ways for the whole family to exercise.
"I know a lot of P.E. teachers, especially in the middle and junior high schools, will send home activity calendars that (students) can fill out with their parents," Hopper said.
Activity alone, however, is only part of the issue, Hopper said. What parents feed their children also has a big impact on the obesity issue.
"Honestly, if a kid is going home to that kind of (bad) food, that's what they're going to eat," she said.
Laina Fullum picks up that thread for the district. As director of nutrition services, Fullum works to serve students nutritious meals at school.
This year she implemented the Farm to Food initiative. After the 2008 national Farm Bill, school lunch programs are now allowed to give preference to local farmers.
Columbia is one of only a handful of Missouri school districts that asks local farmers to grow a variety of produce — including tomatoes, berries, melons, potatoes and onions — to serve in school cafeterias.
Initially Fullum and her cross-state colleagues had difficulty getting access to the local food, but the situation is improving, she said.
"What we've run into is a lack of infrastructure and a lack of supply," Fullum said. "So, what we're currently doing is working with a new vendor to help supply us with local fresh foods and vegetables.
"We're essentially asking farmers to start to grow what we want them to grow. And that's a big risk for them."
Buying food locally typically means the food will be picked more in season and will therefore taste better, Fullum said.
"We're hoping that that will increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables in children if it tastes better and looks better, and they also know that it comes from Missouri," she said.
But Fullum isn't the first to push for more nutritious meal options in Columbia. Her predecessor, Pat Brooks, removed the majority of vending machines from schools, as well as all kitchen fryers. No foods are fried on Columbia school premises, Fullum said.
National and local recommendations
But changes are on the horizon for Columbia and other Missouri school programs. At the end of last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture received a report from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies with eight specific nutrition recommendations on how to improve the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs. The USDA is working on a proposed rule to implement those recommendations.
The optional recommendations include increasing the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables and whole grains, state school lunch program director Karen Wooten said.
Currently, the guidelines are based on meeting a certain amount of nutrients, Wooten said. For example, total fat of any meal must be held to 30 percent of daily calories and saturated fat at 10 percent.
However, these guidelines might begin to focus on having a number of food groups represented in a particular meal, Wooten said.
A major change will be asking students to take (but not necessarily eat) fruit at breakfast or a fruit and vegetable at lunch. This is a welcome suggestion for Fullum, who believes the change has been a long time coming.
"If you can eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, then you're going to eat less of the other items that you should eat less of," Fullum said. "So really fruits and vegetables can supplant meat and fat and other high-fat snacks that many Americans like to eat."
Currently the state doesn't require school districts to adopt any USDA recommendations. Although some states have chosen to adopt the regulations as law, Wooten said Missouri prefers to rule at the local level.
"It's been discussed, but it's been more like Missouri local control is important," Wooten said. "By leaving it that way, every local district can decide what they want to do, but we can provide guidance."
The regulations are also not mandated because most of the regulations are unfunded at both the national and state level, Fullum said. While Columbia won't have too much trouble, these regulations would be a major overhaul for some Missouri schools, she said.
"Yes, President Obama has given additional funding, but it's not near enough what we need in order to make the changes that we would like to make," Fullum said. "I think that it's very sound advice, but we know that it's not going to be funded. And that's hard."
But Fullum said she is hopeful mid-Missouri is on its way to improving access to nutritious food and reducing the incidence of obesity.
"There's a grass-roots effort coming around in Columbia and Boone County," she said. "I think that with our farmers markets that we have here in town, we know that we have lots of farmers interested in staying busy."
Columbia is on its way to becoming a hub for locally farmed produce and will eventually create its own infrastructure needed to run programs such as the Farm to School initiative, Fullum said.
"I think that eventually this city will become a produce processing area," she said.