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Wednesday, February 23, 2011 - 10:30am

PE Teacher Takes on Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity is a persistent problem in Georgia. It has the second highest rate of the disease in the nation.

Nearly one in three children here is considered to be overweight. One elementary in Atlanta is making strides to head off the obesity trend before it sets in.

Betty Jackson is a physical education teacher Burgess Peterson Academy. It’s her job to keep the kids moving.

“Are you ready? Alright here we go… come on team go. How many do we have down?”

Today they’re playing an African hunting game called Nsiskwi. In Nigeria, children throw rocks to knock down a corn cob, but in this gymnasium the kids are aiming their tennis balls at bowling pins.

It’s the most exercise some of them will get all day. Amari Payton is in the first grade.

Stiers: And so when you go home from school what do you do?
Payton: I do my homework and then I sit down and watch TV like four hours and then I start playing.
Stiers: What do you play?
Payton: I play my X Box 360 and I play with my daddy.

Jackson says kids don’t play outside like they used to and that worries her.

“I’m scared for my students that they’re not going to have the lifespan we are going to have because of their physical inactivity.”

Jackson has been teaching PE for 20 years now. She says she’s seeing more and more kids coming in overweight and developing obesity. Now her job not only focuses on getting the kids to move, but also to the food they eat. She’s headed up several programs with private grant money. One provides fresh organic fruit and vegetable snacks for the kids every day.

“Their favorite food can’t be McDonald’s. It can’t be chicken nuggets. They make choices and if they don’t know what choices to make they’ll always make poor choices. So I’m giving them alternatives by introducing them to different types of food.”

Jackson’s efforts have gotten national attention. First Lady Michelle Obama visited the school to mark the first anniversary of her own initiative to prevent childhood obesity.

Children: Ahhh…Mrs. Obama…
Obama: What’s happening? What? What happened?

She helped pass out cups of blueberries to a second grade class mesmerized by her presence.

“You know who loves figs? The president. That’s his favorite snack, or one of his favorite snacks. He loves figs.”

The first lady also toured the school’s garden where the kids learn to grow healthy food. Michelle Rice is a volunteer who teaches gardening. She says the children are learning that eating well isn’t hard to do.

“It teaches that you can cook, you can grow things. There is a whole lot of pride involved with growing your own plant. We planted seeds with the kids and they get to come in every day and watch the seedlings come up under the grow lights and they get excited about that and if they can keep that excitement throughout their lives and pass it on to their children then we’ve built a whole generation of kids who aren’t eating French fries quite as often as they used to.”

Some state lawmakers hope more schools will follow Burgess Peterson Academy’s lead. They’re trying to pass a resolution that urges districts to adopt programs like these to combat childhood obesity.

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