Sunday, March 06, 2016

Boston schools are subservient to dietary myths

There is no firm evidence that sugary drinks have anything to do with obesity, though a high total calorie intake can cause obesity

Sugary soft drinks and juices linked to bulging waistlines have all but disappeared from Boston’s public schools after a major push began years ago to banish the drinks, according to a study published Thursday that calls the city’s strict rules a model for the nation.

Only 4 percent of Boston students have access to sugar-sweetened beverages, said researchers, who examined compliance with a 2004 policy banning the sale of soft drinks, fruit drinks, sweetened teas, and sports drinks in schools. Consumption of such beverages has been strongly linked with obesity.

“The Boston public schools have always been ahead of the curve, particularly on health and nutrition,” said Rebecca S. Mozaffarian, lead author of the study and a nutrition researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Boston’s success, she said, can guide school districts across the nation as they roll out federal rules on sugary beverages that took effect during the 2014-2015 school year.

Published in Preventing Chronic Disease, a publication of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the research took place in 2013, nine years after the Boston School Committee adopted the standards.

Mozaffarian said she was surprised at the magnitude of the difference between Boston and the rest of nation regarding access to sugary drinks in school. Nationwide, only about 40 percent of school districts ban soda, and fewer than 20 percent of elementary and 10 percent of middle or high schools ban other types of sugar-sweetened beverages, such as fruit drinks, according to the study.

As a result, 89 percent of high schoolers nationwide have access to sugar-sweetened beverages at school — compared with only 10.5 percent in Boston’s high schools, Mozaffarian said.

The researchers did not examine whether the policies affected obesity rates. But they cited other research suggesting the ban did affect the amount of sugary beverages Boston students drink.

In 2006, two years after the ban went into effect, a study found that Boston high schoolers had reduced their consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, while no such decline was happening nationally. In 2013, a national survey showed that 17 percent of Boston high school students had one serving or more of sugar-sweetened beverages, compared with 27 percent of high schoolers in 42 states.

Boston’s policies apply to beverages sold outside of the school meals programs, in vending machines, a la carte lines, school stores, and snack bars. The rules allow only water to be sold in elementary schools. Middle schoolers and high schoolers can also buy milk and 100 percent fruit juice, but only in certain sizes and with limitations on fat content and flavoring for milk.

The study found 90 percent of the district’s 115 schools comply — most simply by not selling beverages at all, even bottled water, the rest by selling only those that meet the rules. Only three schools were found to be selling sugar-sweetened beverages; they were not identified. Nine were out of compliance by selling 100 percent fruit juice, milk that didn’t meet the standards, or artificially sweetened waters.

Boston’s policies are stricter than the new rules from the US Department of Agriculture, which allow milk and juice in elementary schools and low-calorie and caffeinated beverages in high school.

The city kept its policy working, the researchers said, through a sustained education and training effort that included a “tool kit” containing letters, fliers, posters, and other materials helping each school implement the program. Schools that violate the rules are given refresher training.

“It’s amazing that after 10 years, Harvard [researchers] went in and were able to document such outstanding compliance,” said Jill Carter, the Boston School Department’s executive director of health and wellness. “That only happened because everybody was on board” — teachers, principals, and parents.

Carter said no state or federal guidelines existed in 2004 when Boston adopted its first set of nutrition policies in an effort to combat obesity. Updating the policies over the years, the school department worked closely with the Boston Public Health Commission, which shared federal grant money.

“We had support from the top. We had collaboration from the health community,” Carter said. “We’ve tried to take a public-health approach to this, not just telling people about the policy but helping them understand why this is important.”

Dr. Caroline M. Apovian, director of the Center for Nutrition and Weight Management at Boston Medical Center, read the study with delight. “Sugar-sweetened beverages should be considered poisonous substances just like tobacco,” she said. “There is absolutely no place for sugar-sweetened beverages in a healthy diet.”

Evidence suggests sugary drinks affect perceptions of fullness and make people want to consume more, while usually providing no nutrition, Apovian said.

Michael Leidig, clinical director of the Center for Youth Wellness at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center, said the Boston district’s ability to sustain the strict policy over nearly a decade can show the way for schools across the country.

“Everyone can agree we don’t need any more sugar in our diets,” Leidig said.

Leidig, who heads a weight-management program for 11- to 18-year-olds, said participants are urged to reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages to just one a day. If such beverages are not available in school, that task is made much easier, he said.

The study did not address whether schools were hurt by losing income from beverage sales, a concern that has deterred other districts. Carter had no information about any such losses, except they were clearly not a problem in Boston.


Colleges Use Tax-Exempt Status to Excuse Restricting Free Speech

Universities point to the tax code as an excuse to suppress free speech on campuses across the United States, an education rights group told a House panel.

Students, professors, and others, testifying Wednesday before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight, said college officials often are reluctant to eliminate “microaggression” policies and allow free speech for fear they will lose tax breaks.

Campus activists define microaggressions as actions or comments that unintentionally offend or discriminate against minority groups.

Alex Atkins, a second-year student at Georgetown University Law Center, told the House panel that the university stopped him and other students from campaigning on campus for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Atkins said administrators prevented the activity, saying the school’s status as a tax-exempt nonprofit limited the ability of Atkins and his group to use campus resources for partisan political activity.

Georgetown University denied Atkins’ request in September 2015 to reserve a table to campaign for Sanders. The next month, it forced his group to stop canvassing on school grounds to attract students to a debate watch party.

Atkins said administrators told him his group was violating campus policy, pointing to Georgetown Law’s 501(c)(3) exemptions under the tax code. They said the IRS required the university to restrict students from using campus resources, including space, to express political views, Atkins testified.

Lawyers for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit civil liberties watchdog, last month wrote a letter to Georgetown Law’s dean on behalf of Atkins’ group, charging that the school misinformed students about the law’s restrictions.

“Despite the seeming severity of the restrictions on political activity at private colleges and universities imposed by the requirements of section 501(c)(3) … it is extremely important to note that these prohibitions apply to the institution itself … not to individual students, faculty, or staff engaged in clearly individual, unaffiliated activity,” the lawyers wrote.

While Georgetown is moving to revise its policies in response to the letter, Atkins said, the university’s actions hindered his group’s ability to campaign earlier in the election season. The student testified:

    "These changes cannot undo the nearly six months that we lost—six months where all we wanted to do was engage in the type of basic civic expression long considered emblematic of America’s educational campuses.     Colleges and universities across the country need to be reminded of their obligation not just to permit, but to protect, the vital free exchange of ideas".

Catherine Sevcenko, associate director of litigation at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, testified that the practice of private and public schools pointing to their tax-exempt status as justification for policies that silence speech is a growing bipartisan issue.

“[Colleges] were granted tax-exempt status because they have an educational mission,” Sevcenko told the subcommittee. “I think it’s deeply ironic that the universities, in an attempt to preserve their 501(c)(3) status, are in fact censoring people, censoring students, which is undermining the very purpose that they’re there for.”

Of the 450 colleges and university policies studied by her organization, Sevcenko said, 50 percent have unconstitutional speech codes.

Modesto Junior College in California, for example, blocked Army veteran Robert Van Tuinen from handing out copies of the Constitution to classmates on Constitution Day two years ago.

A campus security guard told Van Tuinen that if he wanted to express himself in public, he had to sign up for the school’s free speech zone, which wasn’t available until the next month.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education represented Van Tuinen in February 2014, ultimately winning a court ruling compelling Modesto Junior College to pay the student $50,000 and change its free speech policies.

But Sevcenko said legal action is time-consuming and expensive, often meaning that students remain censored for extended periods of time.

The Internal Revenue Service, she said, needs to clarify its guidance on political activity restrictions for 501(c)(3) organizations so that free speech on school grounds is properly protected.

“Confusion over the IRS guidelines is a likely cause of this censorship,” Sevcenko said. “General counsels are not going to allow political activity that they fear would endanger the school’s tax-exempt status. As long as the IRS guidance is ambiguous, censorship will win out every time.”


Indoctrination, Population Control and Climate Change

What a Masters in Environmental Science Learned at the University

Most people think of education as a teaching of facts, one plus one equals two. Many in the West also identify education with the teaching of logic and critical thinking skills. Unfortunately, in many instances, facts and logic have been replaced by indoctrination — indoctrination into specific thought processes or belief systems.

Whether in the primary schools in the remote parts of the world, or a graduate study program at the finest university in the West, there is always an inherent bias due to the evolving nature of human understanding. Nevertheless, it is expected that those who devise the curriculum and syllabus do it in an unbiased manner using the highest standards. Yet this is often not the case. In the specialization of undergraduate and postgraduate studies, this can lead to a dangerous lack of counter perspectives and, where debate and discussion are not present, the indoctrination of students.

I completed my undergraduate studies in India and took environmental sciences during my freshmen year at the university. The emphasis of the syllabus was largely on the reduction of pollution levels, the “sustainable” use of natural resources, the conservation of forest resources and the effects of human population on ecosystems. The impact of human activity on the environment (pollution, depletion of resources, etc.) and prescription of methodologies for the conservation of natural resources (wildlife protection, switching to bio-degradable products, etc.) were the dominating themes.

Climate change and its associated impacts were not given much importance in the curriculum during my undergraduate studies (2004 to 2008). My instructor for the subject was a chemistry graduate who knew little about environmental sciences. But critical thinking about course materials was not a part of the class either. Grades were awarded based on the ability to replicate the material presented in the prescribed textbook. There was no room for an open academic discussion or analysis about the subject, nor was there any time allocated for discussions among students and instructors.

The syllabus itself was highly polarized. It demonized the human population as the source of resource constraint and the reason for degradation of the environment. This accusation goes well beyond the call for reduction of pollution levels and sanitation. It has undertones of the ideology implemented by the country’s family planning commission and prescribes a small family to control population growth. The curriculum failed to mention the after effects of population control programs and what they mean for the economy. The solutions lacked clarity and the science behind them were not holistic. The positive relationship between the environment and human development was rarely addressed. In general, the curriculum neglected the positive impacts of the Industrial Revolution and the contribution of fossil fuels to the development of human life.

My Master’s in Environmental Science was from the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. I specialized in ecological responses to climate change — basically how organisms and the ecosystem in general respond to fluctuations in global temperature levels. While my undergraduate study did not leave any room for critical understanding of the science behind environmental sciences and climate change, my postgraduate study was at the other extreme. Climate change science was introduced to me as a settled fact, i.e. there is an extreme increase in the temperature levels due to carbon dioxide (CO) levels, and this is predominantly due to anthropogenic (human) causes. (The instruction included the famous and fallacious “Hockey stick” representation).

Professors did not present the pros and cons of climate change science or any opposing viewpoints. They solely assumed the veracity of climate change and began our courses with instruction on mitigating the impact of climate change on ecological systems.

Yes, it’s true, one cannot expect a university, or its instructors, to spoon feed the foundational aspects of science to its grad students. But to present anthropogenic extreme warming or, for that matter, “climate change” as a scientifically established and settled fact is a gross misrepresentation of the actual science of climate change. It does injustice to the scientific method and deprives inquisitive minds of the opportunity to delve deeper into the science. Such an attitude inhibits scientific advancement in a subject area (climate change science) that is critical for determining economic and energy policies central to global human development.

None of the curriculum in my undergrad and post-grad addressed the following subjects:

*    Poverty level and alleviation,

*    The impact of climate change mitigation policies on the economic development of developing countries and their population,

*    The science behind actual contribution of CO to the warming of climate in the post-industrial era and the models that were used for it, or

*    The cost-benefit analysis of different environmental issues and policies and the disadvantages of limiting resource utilization.

Remarkably, it portrayed an ethical perspective where the suppression of human life for the good of the environment was deemed the most desirable way forward.

Can this be attributed to the influence of worldview on the sciences? I would answer in the affirmative.

The conflict of interest due to the worldview arises at a number of points, but most notably on the subject of the sacredness of human life and how resources should be utilized. Even on purely naturalistic terms, it strips humans of their rights from being equal shareholders with the rest of the living organisms (including their entitlement to flourish).

I would assert further that there is no ethical basis in a naturalistic framework to limit the growth of human population. The naturalist and the atheist invoke theistic moral values (specifically from the Judeo-Christian worldview) to hold humans responsible for the supposed depletion of the environment.

The Christian perspective, on the other hand, calls for a responsible stewardship of earth by humans, based on the Biblical mandate. The Christian worldview promotes human life — to develop and promote activities that will address the livelihood of humans, the flourishment of human life and the utilization of the resources to aid in the same. It also lays the ethical principles for stewarding the creation — thus discouraging abuse of the environment and the creatures therein.

Indoctrination in education is a cancer that kills the inquisitive and renders the intellect paralyzed. It’s unfortunate that the scientific methodology is being dominated by political entities. There will never be a conflict between science and my faith. But the perpetrators who have twisted the scientific system to their gains will always be a challenge to my moral values regarding truth, integrity, justice, equality and desire to have an educational environment that is free from indoctrination.


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