Disparities in nutrition and physical education still exist in schools

Unequal funding is at the core of these disparities.

Despite legislation signed into law by California Gov. Gavin Newsom to provide free breakfast and lunch to all K-12 students, the state, like much of the rest of the country, still has work to do to close the nutrition and physical education equity gap.

The new law replaces a reduced-price meal program that only benefited students in households with income below a certain level.

While Matt Flesock, executive director of UCLA Health Sound Body Sound Mind, commends California for being proactive as the first state to provide free meals to all students, he says it still has a long way to go when it comes to supporting schools in impoverished communities.

“Schools in affluent neighborhoods have so many more resources, both in the schools themselves and in their neighborhoods and communities,” Flesock says.

“Schools in lower-income communities have run down playgrounds, if there is a playground at all,” he continues. “On the nutrition front, community access to healthy food is significantly limited in lower-income areas.”

Unequal funding is at the core of these disparities, Flesock says.

Parents in affluent communities who monetarily support their children’s schools through fundraising are more likely to lobby for enhanced physical education programs and facilities. They are also able to provide their children healthier food options from home.

Poorer schools in underserved neighborhoods, on the other hand, often struggle to adequately meet those needs.

Health education is key

The disparities are further amplified off-campus, Flesock says. Access to fresh produce and farmers markets often is limited in underserved communities. “You’ll find more fast-food chains than grocery stores in these areas,” he said.

While many people choose fast-food options because they feel it is more affordable, Flesock says it is possible to eat healthy on a strict budget.

He and his team at SBSM, which, since 1998, has been building state-of-the-art fitness centers in middle schools and high schools across Southern California, are creating a more-comprehensive health and physical education curriculum to benefit underserved communities.

“We are still going to build out fitness centers, but we want to develop an approach that is more about the curriculum, health and wellness education and teacher professional development,” he says.

“We want to dispel the myth about the affordability of healthy versus processed food. You can buy a 16-ounce box of whole-grain pasta for about a $1.50. For a few extra dollars you can add mushrooms and bell peppers. That’s about five dollars, and it is far healthier than spending eight or nine dollars on a fast-food meal for a family of four.”

Flesock continues, “However, we know that every circumstance is not the same and in some underserved communities there is little to no access to healthy foods. We want to be an organization that helps bring about that change so all communities have access to healthy foods.”

Closing the gap

Flesock acknowledges that alleviating disparities will be difficult, but it is possible.

“We need two things,” he says. “Funding is critical to our work and maintaining these programs long-term is an ongoing investment. Second, we need advocacy from the parents and caretakers to push schools and school districts to further prioritize nutrition and physical education.”

Flesock adds it will take community level investments and development to make healthier food more available in impoverished communities.

 Learn more about youth nutrition and health.

Related:

Untangling the misleading myths about nutrition

Sound Body Sound Mind is changing the landscape of physical education

Back to school: Transitioning back to in-person interactions


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