Analysis: New law another step in obesity fight

By Shelia Byrd/The Assocated Press

A bill recently signed into law by Gov. Haley Barbour is another small step in Mississippi’s quest to shed its image as the unhealthiest state in the nation.

The bill provides financial incentives to schools to promote healthy environments. The monetary awards range from $2,000 to $8,000, and are given to schools that participate in the federal HealthierUS Schools Challenge.

Currently, five Mississippi schools are in the program that recognizes the efforts of campuses that focus on nutrition and physical activity. Schools are rated as bronze, silver or the highest level of gold.

Three schools in the Corinth School District have the gold rating, said Shane McNeill, director of the office of healthy schools for the Mississippi Department of Education. The silver school is in Starkville and the bronze school is in South Panola, he said.

McNeill hopes financial incentives will inspire other schools to join. McNeill acknowledges the process involves a lot of documentation and several levels of approval. And, the program requires the schools to “go above and beyond the minimum requirements” for nutrition, he said.

Schools that have taken that step should be commended. After all, serving healthy meals often comes at a higher cost. School districts already struggling under budget cuts have to be frugal with their dollars.

Fresh fruit and vegetables aren’t cheap, and whole grains tend to cost more, too. McNeill said there also are costs associated with changing equipment. For instance, several school districts have swapped deep fryers for combination oven steamers.

The incentive awards for the HealthierUS program could offset some of those costs.

Barbour, lawmakers and other state officials recognize the need of putting an emphasis on nutrition, but their motives may not be altogether altruistic.

From the government’s perspective, a healthy population saves on taxpayer costs. The state’s Division of Medicaid, which provides health coverage to the needy, had a budget of $5 billion this fiscal year. That figure includes federal and state dollars.

Mississippi has the nation’s highest obesity rates, and there’s also a high rate of diabetes and heart disease.

State leaders don’t want to see another generation requiring taxpayer-funded health care because of poor diet choices.

McNeill added that a healthy student also is more apt to learn. That’s another reason to focus on nutrition since Mississippi routinely ranks at the bottom of national educational assessments. Barbour and Mississippi Economic Council President Blake Wilson frequently speak about the need for a more educated populace to entice economic development projects.

So it could be argued that choosing an apple over potato chips is indirectly tied to higher-paying jobs.

The new law goes into effect July 1. The $200,000 in the bill isn’t really a new expense. McNeill said Mississippi is required to provide a $2.7 million match to comply with the requirements of federal child nutrition programs. The $200,000 will go toward that match.

The state has been getting credit for various programs recently. Last month, the nation’s First Lady Michelle Obama visited Mississippi to hold it up as an example of what’s being done right to fight childhood obesity, an issue she’s made her personal initiative.

A few months before she arrived, Mississippi was recognized by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for reducing student access to sugary snacks and beverages. The CDC report released in October showed the share of schools in the state banning unhealthy snacks went from 28 percent in 2006 to 77 percent in 2008.