Fighting Childhood Obesity Through School Design

The new cafeteria in Buckingham Country Primary & Elementary Schools in Virginia (courtesy of ABC News and VMDO Architects/Tom Daly Photography)

The new cafeteria in Buckingham Country Primary & Elementary Schools in Virginia (courtesy of ABC News and VMDO Architects/Tom Daly Photography)

This week, the New York Times reported that federal authorities revealed a 43 percent decline in the obesity rate among children aged 2 to 5 years during the last decade. Although there has been an increase in public awareness and education regarding the risks and detriments associated with obesity in the United States, it still remains a health concern nationwide.

In 2013, Virginia measured 27.4 percent of its population as being obese as compared to 2012 when 29.2 percent of its population was obese. Although over a quarter of the state population is still struggling with obesity, these recent statistics marked a 1.8 percent decrease in only a year. The noticeable decline in obesity may be due to numerous factors including the state’s focus on fighting obesity in public schools.

In 2012, the Institute of Medicine recommended that developing school food environments to encourage healthy eating is a strategy to prevent and reduce childhood obesity. The design strategies recommended focused in five core principles : 1. The provision of equipment and space that facilitate the incorporation of fresh and healthy food choices into the school and its community; 2. The provision of facilities to directly engage the school community in food production and preparation; 3. The application of evidence-and theory-based behavioral science principles to nudge the school community to healthy eating behavior and attitudes; 4. The use of building and landscape features to provide awareness of healthy and sustainable food practices; and 5. The conception and articulation of school spaces as community assets to multiply the benefits of school-based healthy foods.

In May of 2013, ABC News highlighted one school in Buckingham County, Virginia, that exemplifies these guidelines and took a drastic approach to fight obesity by redesigning the school building and constructing a new elementary school that focuses on promoting physical activity and healthy eating. Terry Huang, a public health expert who helped to spearhead the project, developed healthy eating guidelines for school architecture that provides architects and public health professionals strategies for making school environments more conducive to learning about, and practicing healthy eating through optimizing physical resources and learning spaces.

The new school cafeteria in Buckingham County boasts a new open eating area where children can look on as their meals are being prepared and can also see the space for the school garden outside. Additionally, the new school also incorporated a food lab and kid kitchen into the cafeteria. The purpose of the food lab is to continue education in the cafeteria and inform children about healthy food options. The kid’s kitchen will eventually be a place where children will be able to concoct recipes from vegetables they helped to grow in the garden.

Oumou Balde, 4, with her teacher,  Jacqueline Sanchez, in a nutrition program in New York. (courtesy of Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

Oumou Balde, 4, with her teacher, Jacqueline Sanchez, in a nutrition program in New York. (courtesy of Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

Bob Moje, president of the architecture firm, VMDO, that designed and built the school, further explained some of the design techniques of the new cafeteria as shifting away from the typical “fast-food” atmosphere of many school cafeterias, by doing things such as replacing prominently displayed soda fountains with water fountains with educational signs informing students of the health benefit of drinking water.
In addition to the cafeteria, the school has staircases designed to lure children to climb them and incorporated chairs that allow children to move while being seated. Other studies have shown that an increase in two minutes of stair climbing each day could lead to a reduction of 1.2 pounds per year. The focus on physical activity in school design can also help children combat obesity.

The example of Buckingham County in Virginia may encourage other areas to consider design strategies to promote healthy eating habits and physical activity in their quest to decrease childhood obesity. Design may be the next step in combating childhood obesity.

-Nora Ciancio; Research Officer

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