Last week's report by the Every Child Matters Education Fund should be a source of shame for South Carolina. Instead, it will get some editorial notice and sorrowful head-shaking from pundits and politicians. And then it will be forgotten, because, you see, we've known all this for years.
In short, the report listed S.C. as the sixth-worst state for children, based on a wide range of criteria, including children living in poverty, children subject to abuse, children dying before the age of 19, children without health insurance.
This should come as no surprise to those who follow the S.C. Kids Count annual report. According to the Kids Count Data Book for 2007, S.C. ranked 46th for child well-being among the 50 states, based on many of the same criteria as the Every Child Matters study.
What was surprisingly absent from both of these studies was any data on childhood nutrition in the state. Of course, one can extrapolate from the number of low birth-weight babies and the number of children living in poverty that nutrition here is not good. One can also determine the same by counting the number of 270-pound teenagers waddling down the streets and through the malls of the Lowcountry. Something is seriously amiss with the diet of South Carolinians, and it affects no one more seriously than children.
We did get some insight into the diet of teenagers from a recent letter to the editor of The Post and Courier from local nutritionist and media gadfly, Dr. Ann Kulze. She wrote: "So we now have literally thousands of kids in our Charleston County Schools with this chronic disease (metabolic syndrome) who are being fed the very foods that promote its development and fuel its progression ... With the exception of an occasional piece of fresh fruit and low-fat milk, I did not see a single breakfast offering from the Charleston County school menu for the entire month of February that would be allowed in the dietary prescription for a metabolic-syndrome patient or, for that matter, that would sustain and promote the health of any child."
Kulze went on to cite another pediatric dietary specialist as saying the three most prominent drivers of the childhood obesity epidemic are television, fast food, and schools.
Kulze's letter drew the attention of Joanne Milkereit, a registered dietician who has worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, among other agencies.
In her own letter to the editor, Milkereit wrote: "To solve the problems associated with the food children eat, we must begin by helping those primarily and initially ... responsible for what children eat: their parents."
She went on to criticize the lack of coordination within schools and within communities to educate children about diet and to provide them with appropriate foods. Beyond the school lunchroom, students face many dietary distractions and temptations, including "vending machines, classroom parties, and food sold for fund-raisers, at sporting events and in school stores ... None I've listed above is under the supervision of school food service. Recently, a proud community volunteer told me about the pizza and cupcake parties her group hosts for student achievers in a Charleston school."
In a subsequent interview, Milkereit told me that she would like to see instruction on proper dietary habits extend to the classroom, and not simply with charts and pictures, but perhaps with real food. "You can't just plunk an unfamiliar food in front of a child and expect him to eat it," she said. "There is a total disconnect between food service and classrooms."
Beyond that, she said, children eat more of their meals away from school than at school. Taking junk food and bad menu items out of schools is only part of the dietary solution. Families, churches, and community organizations must get involved. They must coordinate and communicate and create a clear message about healthy foods and dietary habits. And they must do it despite the ubiquitous presence of fast food and its marketing.
This is an altogether worthy goal, but it is not one that we are likely to see implemented in this state in the 21st century. It would require a large investment of money and energy from the public sector, and history has shown that this is something that our leaders are simply not willing to do. Beyond the reluctance to write the check, there is the philosophical barrier. In this state there is a deep and historic hostility to public education, made all the more intense since school desegregation and the rise of the Christian right-wing. Such a program would be denounced as just another usurpation of family responsibility by the public sector.
Dietary education? I'm all for it, but it is one of those problems we will still be talking about in 2108.