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Texas Taxpayers Wasted $37M on Failed Childhood Obesity School Program, Study Says

Texas taxpayers wasted $37 million on a failed state program intended to help low-income middle schools cut student obesity rates through physical fitness, according to new study by the University of Texas at Austin.

The four year grant for the failed childhood obesity school program, Texas Fitness Now, funded schools to purchase sports and gym equipment from 2007 to 2011. Between 2007-09, money went to the poorest 24 percent of Texas middle schools; and in 2009-11, it went to the poorest 40 percent of middle schools, UT News reported.

One-quarter of the money was originally meant for nutrition, but a much smaller ratio of about seven percent of the 2009-10 funds went to healthy eating initiatives, said Paul von Hippel, study co-author and assistant professor at the university’s LBJ School of Public Affairs.

The study, “The Effects of School Physical Education Grants on Obesity, Fitness, and Academic Achievement,” analyzed obesity rates at more than 1,150 middle schools enrolling more than 770,000 students per year.

The public schools spent most of the $37 million in state grants on sports gear and fitness equipment. The grants did not reduce obesity but did increase fitness.

Funded by the State Legislature, Texas Fitness Now started in the 2007-08 school year and ended in 2011 during recessionary times when lawmakers cut education spending. The public schools got to keep the equipment they bought over the four years, the study said, so that these fitness benefits were not lost after the program ended.

Researchers found that the greatest health benefits to students were in measures of strength, and were greater for girls than boys. Both sexes could do more push-ups and faster shuttle runs, though. Girls could complete more curl-ups, a higher trunk life, and had a better sit and reach but the grants did not increase shoulder flexibility or help the middle school students run a mile more quickly, noted the study.

“While the results may not be what we all would have hoped for, many middle schools in some of the poorest areas of our state were able to acquire needed fitness equipment,” Texas Education Agency (TEA) spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said in a statement, according to the UT Center for Health and Social Policy (CHASP).

TEA administered the grant dollars. Ratcliffe added that increases in fitness for middle school boys and girls acknowledged in the study “may result in better health practices in the future.”

Von Hippel told San Antonio news radio 1200 WOAI that the problem with the program and other similar ones nationwide is that they focus solely on exercise.

“Physical education by itself has a very limited chance of reducing obesity,” he emphasized. “You need to intervene in the diet.”

Von Hippel added, “The state launched this program with limited evidence that it could reduce obesity and continued and then discontinued the program without much evidence of whether it was working or not.”

Texas Fitness Now creators predicted the grant program would boost students’ academic achievement and cognitive abilities “through increased fitness,” CHASP highlighted; but this did not happen. The program showed no effect on middle schoolers math and reading scores. The outcomes of these kind of physical education programs are often unknown.

The once promising Texas Fitness Now was featured in the 2012 HBO documentary “Weight of the Nation” that tackled the issue of obesity in America.

Austin‐based St. David’s Foundation funded the study conducted at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT-Austin. It is the largest study ever conducted on a physical education program.

Follow Merrill Hope on Twitter @OutOfTheBoxMom.

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