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US School District Tries to Combat Epidemic of Obese Students - 2003-01-09

Sedentary lifestyles and the popularity of junk food among American youngsters have resulted in what public health officials say is an epidemic rise in childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes.

School officials in Oakland, California, have taken steps to address the issue. Theirs was the first school system in the state to ban the sale of sodas, candy and junk food on campuses. Now, they've gone even further.

The Oakland district is the first in the nation to hire a diabetes nurse, establishing a program that could be a model for schools around the country.

At Oakland's Bret Harte Junior High Joe Solowiejczyk's is known as 'Nurse Joe'. He manages the in-school care for the 50 students already diagnosed with diabetes in Oakland system's 107 schools. He's training teachers to recognize and respond to the symptoms of high and low blood sugar. He's working on a plan to screen kids who are at risk and hopefully to prevent, or if needed, treat a condition which left unchecked can lead to blindness, heart disease, amputation, and coma.

The school district has good reason to hire Nurse Joe, a diabetic himself. About 75 percent of Oakland's 52,000 students are African-American or Latino, groups whose risk of getting type two diabetes can be two or three times higher than that of whites.

About 20 percent of the students in one class say someone in their family had the disease. Nurse Joe says that gives his job a sense of urgency. "We want to prevent them from getting to where their aunts and uncles and grandma's and grandpa's are," he said. "And also what am I going to do for a follow-up. Because we know for ourselves that a one-shot deal is not going to make this thing go away. It's going to be on going."

Nurse Joe included long-term issues when he visited Chabot Elementary. He talked to teachers about helping their students establish good eating habits, something that discourages a craving for junk food. The school took heed. Principal Denise Saddler says they've made some changes.

"So we actually give more time for lunch. The kids want to gobble their lunches and go play on the yard, but we really, really emphasize that the children take time to eat as a result, because now we see that brain-food connection.

Dr. Nancy Krebs, who chairs the Nutrition Committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said the "schools have a tremendous role to potentially play in helping stem the tide of obesity. It's school diets, it's physical activity, it's access to food, the kinds of school lunches that are being offered. All of these play into this."

But how involved schools can be in prevention remains a question. Budget cuts have forced many districts to drastically reduce health-related programs. The National School Nurses Association is concerned that hiring specialists like 'Nurse Joe' will take away resources needed to meet overall health concerns, cutting into their efforts to ensure that one school nurse is available for every 750 students.

But Oakland parent Barbara Stewart is delighted with the program. Her five-year old daughter has diabetes. Miz Stewart says Nurse Joe went beyond the basics: he met with all her daughter's schoolmates and their teachers at the beginning of the school year.

"I can't say enough good things, I feel so good about it. It took the mystery out of it, and I think it got rid of a lot of the misconceptions and the fears," he said.

Nurse Joe has even bigger plans for the future, like bringing in a hip hop artist and hosting salsa parties. In the meantime, he takes advantage of every opportunity to engage his audience. One day when his blood sugar level was out of whack, and he needed insulin. he showing the kids how he prepares his insulin injection. His main message to the kids was: you are what you eat.

"If you have diabetes you have to do this three times a day," he said. When asked what kinds of foods are high in sugar, he replied, "Kool-Aid, fruit drinks...if you drink three Big Gulps in a day you're way over the top in calories."

After the injection one student reacted by saying, "I don't want diabetes." To which Joe replied, "That makes two of us."