Nebraska institutions try to fight childhood obesity

Sen. Bill Avery introduced the bill to the unicameral in an effort to reduce childhood obesity rates in the state. Photos and story by Kristina Jackson, NewsNetNebraska

Nebraskans worry about rising childhood obesity rates.

Institutions including schools and the state legislature are taking steps to lower these rates and create a healthier future for young Nebraskans. School wellness programs educate students about nutrition and exercise but struggle with funds. A proposal in the unicameral aims to alleviate this problem.

Center for Disease Control statistics estimate that roughly one-third of Nebraska’s children are overweight. Down the road, these children are more likely to suffer from diabetes, heart disease and other severe health issues.

Michelle Welch, wellness facilitator for Lincoln Public Schools, said sometimes budget constraints do not allow for physical activity in schools every day. Welch said she wants to work more closely with families to extend nutrition education into the summer months, as well as working with the district staff to make them models for the students.

“We’re building the future of the students of Lincoln,” Welch said. “We know families are working with limited resources.”

Welch said schools could make an impact by lengthening the school day and incorporating more nutrition education and activity into the regular school day. For Welch and her students, it’s about creating a framework for healthy living. She wants students to learn about weight management and the effect of diet on maintaining their weight.

“They’re with schools most waking hours of their day,” Welch said. “We can have an impact on their plans for the future.”

For its part, the Nebraska unicameral is considering a bill that would put a tax on soft drink sales. The money collected would benefit school wellness programs. LB 753, introduced by Sen. Bill Avery of district 28, aims to combat childhood obesity.

If this bill is passed, soft drinks will no longer be classified as a food item and therefore would not fall under the food exemption for sales taxes.

“There’s no way you can argue that these are food items,” Avery said. “They only contribute to obesity.”

The Nebraska Beverage Association opposes LB 753 because they don’t want their product singled out for taxation when it will not single-handedly lower obesity rates.

According to Avery, the tax will equalize prices because soft drinks bought from vending machines already include a tax, but those purchased at grocery stores do not.

“Nobody would support exempting sugar beverages if the proposal was reversed,” Avery said.

Avery remembers getting physical activity at school every day as a child, and hopes to increase the amount today’s students get, especially because of the health risks of obesity.

“Families can’t afford the health care, and the states pick up the tab,” he said.

LB 753 is currently stalled in the revenue committee. Avery thinks election year politics played a role in debate.

“They don’t want to be accused of raising taxes,” he said. “They lack the spine to do what’s right. I’ll bring it back next year.”