National Diabetes Month: Taking on type 2

While its biggest day features an oftentimes hefty meal, November is also National Diabetes Month — a time when education leaders can place an added focus on the health and well-being of students.

Type 2 diabetes has become increasingly common among children and adolescents as obesity rates rise, according to the California School-Based Health Alliance. Because the chronic condition is largely brought on by an unhealthy lifestyle, it is largely preventable through healthy eating and regular exercise. The American Diabetes Association advises that eating less fat, fried foods and sugar, in addition to exercising at least 30 minutes a day for five days a week, can delay and possibly prevent the onset of type 2 diabetes.

Schools can offer a setting where such practices are promoted and celebrated, said Melissa Cannon, policy advocate at California Food Policy Advocates in Oakland. A student’s home life might present barriers to a healthy lifestyle, with a parent working two jobs and not being able to cook dinner, for example, or a child living too far from a park to regularly exercise.

“School environments can just be such a safe haven for young children,” Cannon said, adding that obesity is one of the biggest triggers for not only type 2 diabetes but health concerns such as high cholesterol. She said the good news is that progress has been and continues to be made with school meals. State and federal laws, innovation by district nutrition education consultants and student involvement in meal planning have laid a solid groundwork at many K-12 sites.

  • Type 2 diabetes is growing among children and adolescents.
  • Healthy school meals can help deter the condition.
  • A focus on physical activity during the school day can lead to a healthier lifestyle for at-risk youth.

“The school food that I ate when I was in school is so different than what is served now,” Cannon said, pointing out that the Local Control Funding Formula is also a monumental step in the right direction because it allows districts to identify local problems and local solutions. If obesity is out of control within a district, for example, school board members can direct more funding toward more nutritious meals.

California School Nurses Organization President-elect Pamela Kahn agreed that there has been substantial progress in recent decades on nutrition awareness. But Kahn, who has worked as a school nurse for 25 years, said more can be done to educate young students and their parents about healthy eating and lifestyles, particularly at or near the habit-forming preschool level.

“We only have the kids eight hours a day; on the way home they could pass McDonald’s,” said Kahn, who is also the Orange County Office of Education coordinator of health and wellness. She said the CSNO continues to push for mandated health education to better inform students of the plethora of risks that may arise from eating too much sugar and fatty foods — in addition to the benefits of a nutritious meal.

Resources school boards can use to encourage healthy habits for students include school-based health centers, the district’s nutrition education consultant and outside programs that can assist in bringing in healthier food options. One such program is California Thursdays, a collaboration between the Center for Ecoliteracy and a network of school districts. Every Thursday, 2,900 schools across the state serve up freshly prepared meals from California-grown food — also teaching students and staff about where their food comes from.

In addition to finding those healthy menu items, the California Department of Public Health says K-12 schools and districts can continue to help prevent type 2 diabetes by strengthening school wellness policy language in the areas of physical activity, nutrition and food security. It says to ensure students have access to healthy food, schools and districts can implement strategies to ensure full participation in the free and reduced-price school meals program. Also, they can consider offering universal breakfast and hosting summer meal sites.

Another benefit to healthy school meals is the growing understanding that school meals are a low-cost way to improve academic performance. Numerous studies have determined that inadequate access to nutrition can lead to impaired physical and cognitive development, reduced attendance rates, worse scores on standardized tests and lower graduation rates in addition to health problems such as obesity and diabetes. And a recent study by the Nutrition Policy Institute at UC Berkeley showed that schools that contracted with vendors to provide healthier school lunch options had better test scores.

For healthy activity on the way to and from school, the department said school boards can work to ensure there are safe walking and biking routes, in addition to working with parents and the community to support active modes of transportation.

CSBA Resources

CSBA governance and policy resources on student physical health and wellness:

“Helping the Student with Diabetes Succeed: A Guide For School Personnel”:

California School-Based Health Alliance:

California Food Policy Advocates:

American Diabetes Association:

“The Meal Deal,” California Schools magazine, Summer 2017