State Auditor Suzanne Bump Digs Into the State’s Health
State Auditor Suzanne Bump is used to conducting audits, since, of course, that’s her job. But when she and her team decided to audit the state programs and initiatives aimed at combating childhood obesity, it was a whole new ballgame.
“This was a different sort of audit for us because we looked at an effort that was being made across several agencies as well as at the local level,” Bump says. “So that was unique. Simply, what spurred us to do this is that childhood obesity is a serious problem that has cost impact, and we decided it was time to determine whether the programs being created and championed were taking hold in the schools. We wanted to know if the money was well-spent.”
According to the report, nearly a quarter of adults residents in Massachusetts were reported to be obese in 2012. This number is projected to rise to half of all adults in the Commonwealth by 2030. Furthermore, childhood obesity is also a major problem, with about 155,000 children under the age of 18 reported to be obese, and an additional 203,000 reported to be overweight. Obesity increases the risk of a slew of serious health problems such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and depression.
In 2012, the Department of Public Health (DPH) created a new set of nutrition standards for food and beverages in school cafeterias, stores, and vending machines. In order to conduct the audit, Bump and her team surveyed a sample of 60 districts across the state and found that the schools were in compliance with DPH’s updated regulations. In addition, according to the report, the auditors found “all sampled schools complied with the state’s standards of physical education (PE), and that the vast majority of schools were fully compliant in measuring student Body Mass Index and reporting that information to the state.”
“We were very pleased with what we saw, actually,” Bump says. “We looked at the activities of the school districts and saw that the programs seemed to be well-administered, and money is being well spent with good results.”
According to the report:
The audit also found that DPH is properly administering $22 million in federal funds to combat childhood obesity and promote overall health and wellness within local communities through its Mass in Motion initiative.
When it comes to physical education, however, although the state did meet the necessary standards, those standards are way too low.
The audit showed “compliance of schools having a PE element to their curriculum” but how that happens varied from school-to-school, district-to-district. Bump says that specifically, the frequency and duration of PE at the elementary schools they looked at ranged from 38 minutes per week to 90 minutes per week. That is a really large range, meaning that some kids are only getting a half-hour of PE, while others are getting a solid hour-and-a-half. Similarly, Bump notes, “PE levels at the middle and high schools that we reviewed ranged from 22 minutes per week to 168.”
This is where Massachusetts fails. The Surgeon General recommends at least 300 minutes of physical activity weekly for all children, with 150 of those minutes happening during the school. The National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends 150 minutes per week of PE for elementary-school students and 225 minutes of PE per week for middle and high school students.
In the report, Bump recommends that the state’s education officials and the legislature consider implementing increased standards for physical activity in schools. She also suggests in the report that schools could achieve increased PE minutes by instituting mandatory PE class durations and classroom activity breaks.
And while, of course, it’s true that some schools are more well-equipped than others—some schools that Bump and her team visited had gyms that could rival any fancy health club, and others even had vegetable gardens—all it takes for increased physical activity in schools is a yard and a jump rope.
Another area that could be improved is providing fresh and healthy food in all areas of the state. The state has been trying to improve access to “quality food,” the report says, but needs to make sure that more farmers’ markets are accepting Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). Bump and her team found that while some farmers’ markets have implemented the use of SNAP benefits, others have resisted because, they say, of “high transaction fees.”
The Commonwealth received a $80,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to promote SNAP at farmers’ markets, yet only $10,625 had been spent.
Still, Bump says that overall she was pleased with the results of the audit. “Our public education system is our society’s great equalizer. We should support complete wellness standards in our schools that foster the hearts, bodies, and minds of our young people,” Bump says.