NYC Anti-Obesity "Fitnessgram" Campaign Backfires, Is Forced to Reconsider its Delivery Process

The New York City Department of Education was forced to rethink its approach to lowering child obesity, after it received major public backlash for sending home a "Fitnessgram" with a thin 9-year-old saying she was overweight. Although school-kids aren't technically meant to open the reports — which contain BMI calculations based on measurements taken back in November — they're the ones carrying the mail to their parents, and so many tend to check and see what's inside.

Roughly 870,000 students carry "Fitnessgrams" home to their parents in New York City alone, but BMI testing is actually undertaken in about 65,000 public schools in 19 states. The way the screenings are done — and how the parents are notified — has been a topic of controversy for the last while. Last February, for example, legislation was put forward in Massachusetts to stop the public health department from getting students' BMI and weight information entirely (the bill has since gone to a committee). But the topic has been contentious for years. Writes Julie Deardorff of the Chicago Tribune:

Schools use and share BMI data in different ways. Some notify parents of the results; others don't. In 2011, parents complained when Hawthorne Elementary School in Elmhurst planned to include BMI results as part of a physical fitness grade. The school hastily dropped the idea; today the information is reported to the state but not given to individual students. Chicago Public Schools also reports only aggregated information.In Evanston, a small group of parents has voiced concerns about everything from how the BMI scores are sent home to whether preteens are emotionally equipped to handle the information.

The Body Mass Index is a pretty rudimentary indicator of health with several limitations, and is really better used to judge trends than the correct weight of a specific person. It's particularly problematic when it comes to children, where "the accuracy of BMI varies substantially according to the individual child’s degree of body fatness." Just generally, the "BMI does not distinguish between excess fat, muscle, or bone mass, nor does it provide any indication of the distribution of fat among individuals," according to the CDC.

Having said that, the most recent scandal is less to do with the BMI-taking itself, and more to do with the delivery of the reports. As the New York Post reported, the parents of a 4-foot-1 nine-year-old girl were outraged this week when the girl found out she had been put in the "overweight" category. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God! Why did I get this?’” the third-grader told the Post, “I’m 4-foot-1, and 66 pounds, and I’m like, what?!”

After a fierce social media backlash, with the hashtag #Fitnessgram trending on Twitter, the Department of Education has promised to re-examine how the reports get sent home. “We are looking at alternative means of distributing the reports so they reach parents directly,” a spokesperson told the Post.Still, it's all rather ironic considering Mayor Bloomberg's recent campaign aimed at promoting self-esteem in middle- and elementary-school girls. Clearly, the girls in the “I’m a Girl. I’m Beautiful the Way I Am” posters aren't the same ones getting told they're fat.

Image: Robert S. Donovan via Flickr