By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A coalition of health advocacy groups on Wednesday urged the government to put more resources into school-based efforts to improve health and fight obesity among youth.
The recommendations by the Healthy Schools Campaign and Trust for America's Health were backed by more than 70 groups including the American Cancer Society and the National Education Association.
In a report, they urged the Department of Education to offer grants to promote healthy living initiatives, fund staff training to include wellness programs, support school efforts aimed at nutrition and exercise and track results of such programs.
"The link between health and learning is clear. Healthy, active and well-nourished children are more likely to attend school, be engaged, and be ready to learn. Often, however, the school setting does not support health," the two nonprofit groups said in their report.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said data linking health and academic success is compelling and that schools must think creatively to work wellness into a variety of subjects.
"When you do things well, children are successful," he said at an event to release the proposal at the National Press Club. But when they don't get a chance to be active or are hungry "bad things happen to them."
The proposal follows findings released earlier this week that the number of obese Americans is expected to soar without dramatic changes. More than 40 percent of U.S. adults are expected to be obese by 2030, according to a government-funded study released on Monday.
Because obesity is increasingly starting earlier in life, experts see reaching kids and teaching them healthy habits as a key step to stemming American's growing waistline. One-third of children aged 2 to 19 are overweight or obese, statistics show.
An effort needs to be made now, the groups urged, and could be done with current Education Department funding and authority.
They said wellness should not be "relegated to an occasional health lesson or physical education class — it is part of math, science, lunch and everything in between."
Jessica Donze Black of the Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project, which is not involved in the proposal, said such efforts are critical because school is central to children's lives.
"Kids spend more time there than any other place outside their home ... certainly we want those healthy messages to pervasive throughout the day," she said.
Part of the difficulty is that efforts to target youth health are fragmented across various government agencies, including the Agriculture Department and Department of Health and Human Services.
First Lady Michelle Obama has also made fighting childhood obesity a top goal, though some critics have said that and other Washington efforts have softened in the face of push-back from the food and beverage industry.
In Wednesday's proposal, health advocates also called on Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to also step up her department's role in students' health. They want officials to make it easier for schools to be reimbursed by Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the poor, among other measures.
The 2010 health care overhaul set $200 million aside to help build or renovate school health clinics. Sebelius on Wednesday said the department was making $75 million of the funds available now, the third such allotment.
A separate report by the influential Institute of Medicine on Tuesday called on schools to become a major focus of anti-obesity initiatives.
IOM's advisers said students should be physically active for one hour each day. It also said that schools should promote water and ban sugar-sweetened drinks, something the Agriculture Department is currently weighing ahead of an upcoming regulation on snacks and drinks sold in schools.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)