Originally published Aug. 28, 2017 in the Tennessean.

The health and well-being of Tennessee’s children are getting in the way of learning — a problem that foreshadows deeper economic and health struggles in the future, according to multiple experts who met in Nashville Monday.

Fusing health education and literacy into schools will be central to improving both the physical and educational well-being of Tennessee’s students, according to conversations between a wide array of health and education experts at what Dr. Richard Besser, CEO of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, called a “landmark” summit in Nashville.


Jill Biden delivers the keynote address of the SCORE summit at Music City Center in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Aug. 28, 2017. (Photo: Andrew Nelles / The Tennessean)

The issues “are bigger than parties or politics,” said Jill Biden, former Second Lady of the U.S. and a community college professor, speaking at “Better Health, Better Learning,” a one-day summit hosted by two organizations founded by Dr. Bill Frist.

The presence of both Democrat and Republican leaders reflected bipartisan interest in the issue.

In 2011, about 22 percent of adolescents in Tennessee had at least one chronic disease related to obesity — such as diabetes, high cholesterol or hypertension — as reported by parents.

The state ranked second in the country for obese high school students, or 18.6 percent of students, in 2015.

State officials say students’ health could drive critical economic and workforce development in the future.

“It’s so important to change the culture in the state. It starts, in my opinion, with our kids,” said State Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro.

“You can go to Wal-Mart to see the state of the state, Ketron said, referring to obesity in the state.

The nexus of education and health is an overlap of Frist’s latest endeavors in Nashville: SCORE and NashvilleHealth.

The state’s education commissioner Candice McQueen, ex-Titans wide receiver Chris Sanders and Rep. Diane Black were joined by health care, public health and school district leaders on what it will take to make Tennessee students healthier.

“We have to be healthy to learn,” said Biden. “Sick, stressed and stretched too thin is a recipe for falling behind.”

‘Our youth are dying. Why are they dying? They don’t eat right’

Children spend about half their waking hours in school. There needs to be a coordinated effort to get more exercise time, and education, into schools, according to health and education officials.

Frist and others hope they can look to the business community for support or donations for cash-strapped districts that don’t have the resources to pursue changes on their own.

Schools are an opportunity to teach students about the importance of moving and eating healthy, said Sanders, a retired Titans wide receiver who now coaches track and field at Montgomery Bell Academy.

Too many kids, and their parents, he said, are on their phones at home instead of playing. The lack of recess or physical education class in school further hinders their health.

Those habits persisted into adulthood. He wondered why he was so drawn to KFC and Krispy Kreme.

“I created a habit,” said Sanders. “A lot of our athletes are creating habits but no one is telling them how to eat right. No one told me to eat carrots, lettuce.”

Now Sanders hopes to use his position as an educator to push a new generation of young people to confront their own bad habits.

“Now we’ve got a whole generation, especially in the hood, no one is telling them to eat right,” said Sanders. Our youth are dying. Why are they dying? They don’t eat right. If we don’t be real then we’re not going to have real change.”

A Tri-Cities initiative helps students get steps and get to school

Getting more health care providers into or working with schools is important.

Economic issues impact the health of the state’s children, particularly in rural areas that are seeing flat, or in some cases, shrinking, population growth, Alan Levine, CEO of Mountain States Health.

The health-education link is the top issue, Levine said, for the state.

The Tri-Cities health system is working with local schools on a program to get students to walk or run for an hour before school. Absenteeism and concentration in class have improved he said.

Mountain States is also subsidizing a program that sends nurse practitioners and physicians into schools so students have easier access to care.

The health system loses about $500,000 a year on it.

“There’s not a good business model for it right now,” said Levine.

Black, who is early in her run for Tennessee governor, said she’d like to see a nurse in every school. She also thinks an aptitude test would give students purpose and excitement about their future, improving their mental health.

For people trying to change the course of the state’s deep health problems, teaching students about the long-term benefits of nutrition and activity is the most effective and financially efficient task.

“Basic education is about as much as silver bullet as we have,” said J.D. Hickey, CEO of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

Reach Holly Fletcher at hfletcher@tennessean.com or 615-259-8287 and on Twitter @hollyfletcher.

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