A recent article in the Columbia Missourian highlights some of the steps being taken in Missouri to combat childhood obesity. Among the initiatives mentioned are the Walking School Bus and Farm to School programs:
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.
The difference between the two programs is that the Walking School Bus is grounded in the volunteerism of adults willing to walk with children to school, with the end of incentivizing good habit formation, whereas Farm to School is a government program that encourages the use of local food in school lunches. There are a couple of problems with the latter. As Sarah Brodsky and Caitlin Hartsell have pointed out, it’s incorrect to conflate “local food” with “healthy food”; food produced locally may not always be healthy, and food that is healthy may be imported from outside a given region. Mandating that school food be locally procured is also costly, because price-based competition from a large portion of the potential market for food is left unconsidered, and the increased demand for local food contributes to a rise in its prices.
It can also be a costly mandate for local farmers, who must cope with changes in the types of crops that they grow. A Columbia school district official admitted:
“We’re essentially asking farmers to start to grow what we want them to grow. And that’s a big risk for them.”
It is indeed a risk for Missouri farmers, who must diversify their crops to meet a new form of demand. Modern farmers maintain a delicate balancing act of running up huge debts in acquiring machinery that is geared specifically for the crops they have elected to raise. Mandating that schools provide local food presents an opportunity for local farmers, but also places a burden on them to raise a diversity of crops year-round — for many, a costly and impractical endeavor. Missouri farmers will be taking more than a “big risk” here and now; this involves their whole financial life plans.
Tackling the difficult issue of childhood obesity requires daily diligence in habit formation, because parents ultimately control the health of their children. One or more healthy meals served at school every day can be negated by a pantry full of junk food at home. This is not to say that schools shouldn’t care about serving healthy food — indeed, school lunch programs that focused on meeting nutritional guidelines, whether or not the food is locally procured, would better balance costs with student health.
Similarly, a mandated exercise class during the school day doesn’t affect the inactivity of kids who stay indoors and play video games all day on the weekends and during the summer. Yet initiatives like the Walking School Bus program directly incentivize the most important players on this issue — the parents and children themselves. Children are habituated toward associating activity with involvement with their peers, and parents are given an easy, safe, and inexpensive way of getting their kids to school that may benefit the community (e.g., through reduced traffic congestion near schools) at the same time. Yet again, volunteerism creates a win-win for everyone.