Virginia Commonwealth University

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Faith and Hope in Fighting Childhood Obesity

February 5, 2011

By Larisa Robinson
Capital News Service

RICHMOND — It was United Methodist Day at the General Assembly, and church members were out in force.

They filed into the Capitol on Thursday morning, led by the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church, which coordinates Methodist ministries throughout the state. At 11 a.m., the group squeezed into Senate Room 1, along with reporters and others, for a press conference.

Not long after, impatience arose. Then the Rev. C. Douglas Smith, president of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, approached the microphone.

“I’m glad to see so many churchgoers in here,” Smith said. “I feel like I should pass around a collection plate.”

After a burst of laughter, Smith got serious. He said the purpose of the news conference was to discuss childhood obesity and legislation to fight it.

“If we don’t begin to address childhood obesity today,” Smith said, “it’s going to impact our military, our economy … and we already see how it is affecting our health insurance.”

Two legislators – Delegate John O’Bannon, R-Henrico, and Sen. Ralph Northam, D-Norfolk – hope to address the problem by requiring more physical activity at school.

Senate Bill 966, proposed by Northam, would require at least 150 minutes of physical education weekly during the regular school year in kindergarten through eighth grade, with a similar goal for high school students, beginning with the 2014 -2015 school year. The measure has passed the Senate, 37-2.

O’Bannon has proposed identical legislation, House Bill 1644. The House approved the bill last week on a 65-31 vote.

O’Bannon said he hopes his bill will positively affect his three grandchildren and other children in Virginia.

“We can’t afford to wait any longer,” he said. “It’s something we have to do for the health of our country and the youth of our nation.”

More than 15 percent of Virginia’s children are obese, according “F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2010,” a study by the Trust for America’s Health.

The study said Virginia could do more to fight obesity, such as setting nutritional standards for school meals that are stricter than the federal rules. (That’s what 20 other states and Washington, D.C., have done.)

Also, unlike other states, Virginia does not collect body mass index data for children and adolescents or require other forms of weight-related assessments in schools.

Northam, a pediatrician, said childhood obesity doesn’t just affect children.

“As a state senator, I feel that I have an obligation to my constituents and taxpayers to help combat childhood obesity so that all of us can avoid paying more in taxes and health insurance premiums to treat preventable conditions down the road,” he said.

“Parents, schools and communities all should play a role, and the best strategies may be different in different settings.”

Northam and O’Bannon aren’t the only legislators who have worked to improve children’s health and fitness.

During last year’s General Assembly session, for instance, Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Winchester, helped pass SB 414. Under that law, the Virginia Board of Education and Department of Health must update regulations setting nutritional guidelines for all competitive foods sold to students during regular school hours.

Some people are skeptical about the effectiveness of laws aimed at fighting obesity. They include Robert Davis, a professor of health and human performance in the School of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“As a physical education instructor, I’m happy to see this kind of legislation pushed,” Davis said. “I’m not confident that anything will come out of it.”

Davis said he fears the state lacks both the money and the willpower to carry out the laws effectively.

Requiring more time for physical education and promoting healthier lifestyles for children would cause financial strain, Davis said. He said such efforts also put stress on elementary school teachers who may be more concerned with academics.

But speakers at Thursday’s press conference have faith that society can address the issue of childhood obesity.

“Our children are our future,” said Charlene Kammerer, bishop of the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church. “I believe with the help of Virginia legislators and as a part of the faith community, we can do this.”


On the Web

To read the report “F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2010,” visit:

How They Voted

Here is how the Senate voted Jan. 25 on SB 966. The vote was 37-2 in favor of the bill.

YEAS–Barker, Colgan, Deeds, Edwards, Hanger, Herring, Houck, Howell, Locke, Lucas, Marsden, Marsh, Martin, McDougle, McEachin, McWaters, Miller, J.C., Newman, Norment, Northam, Obenshain, Petersen, Puckett, Puller, Quayle, Reynolds, Saslaw, Smith, Stanley, Stosch, Stuart, Ticer, Vogel, Wagner, Wampler, Watkins, Whipple–37.

NAYS–Blevins, Ruff–2.

NOT VOTING–Miller, Y.B.–1.

Here is how the House voted Tuesday on HB 1644. The vote was 65-31. The bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Education and Health.

YEAS–Anderson, Armstrong, BaCote, Barlow, Bell, Richard P., Brink, Byron, Carr, Carrico, Cosgrove, Cox, J.A., Crockett-Stark, Dance, Edmunds, Englin, Garrett, Greason, Herring, Hope, Howell, A.T., Iaquinto, James, Janis, Joannou, Jones, Kilgore, Knight, Kory, Lewis, Lingamfelter, Loupassi, Marshall, D.W., Marshall, R.G., Massie, May, McClellan, McQuinn, Merricks, Miller, J.H., Miller, P.J., Morefield, Morgan, Morrissey, O’Bannon, Oder, Orrock, Peace, Phillips, Pogge, Poindexter, Purkey, Putney, Robinson, Scott, J.M., Sickles, Spruill, Stolle, Torian, Toscano, Tyler, Villanueva, Ware, O., Wilt, Wright, Mr. Speaker–65.

NAYS–Abbitt, Abbott, Albo, Athey, Bell, Robert B., Bulova, Cline, Cole, Comstock, Cox, M.K., Ebbin, Filler-Corn, Gilbert, Habeeb, Hugo, Ingram, Johnson, Keam, Landes, LeMunyon, Nutter, Plum, Pollard, Rust, Scott, E.T., Sherwood, Shuler, Surovell, Ward, Ware, R.L., Watts–31.

NOT VOTING–Alexander, Cleaveland, Tata–3.

Delegate Alexander recorded as not voting. Intended to vote yea.

Delegate Anderson recorded as yea. Intended to vote nay.

Delegate Cleaveland recorded as not voting. Intended to vote yea.

Delegate Lingamfelter recorded as yea. Intended to vote nay.