Described as an “epidemic” by the Surgeon General (Satcher, 2001), obesity is increasingly recognized as a leading public health issue in the United States. National Center of Health Statistics data show that 65 percent of U.S. adults are currently obese or overweight and at risk for multiple related negative health conditions including Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney failure and cancer. Between 1990 and 2000, the prevalence of diabetes within the adult population nearly doubled, increasing from 4.9 to 8.7 percent. Another national study found that in 1998, obesity and overweight-related health costs accounted for 91 percent of U.S. medical expenditures, approximately half of which were paid for by Medicare and Medicaid.

Children are by no means immune from these trends. A National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey completed by the National Center for Health Statistics from 1999-02 indicates that 16 percent of children aged 6-19 in the United States are overweight, an increase of 45 percent from 1988-94, and a doubling from 1976-80. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine argues that the average life expectancy of today’s children may be shortened by two to five years due to obesity-related health problems. Other research indicates that childhood obesity persists into adulthood. Children who are overweight have a far greater likelihood of becoming obese adults. Hence, there is a pressing need to understand the factors contributing to these trends, and determine how public policy at both state and local levels may best address these issues.

In partnership with Pennsylvania Advocates for Nutrition and Activity (PANA), and the Pennsylvania Department of Health, with additional assistance from the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools (PARSS), the Pennsylvania Office of Rural Health, and the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), this working group initiated research examining:

  • The relationship between child obesity rates within Pennsylvania’s schools and the school-level implementation of procedures and practices related to physical activity and nutrition;
  • Community-level contextual factors that may also be related to child obesity rates, with a particular focus on rural areas, including access to parks and recreation, access to full service grocery stores, availability of fresh fruits and vegetables within schools, and availability of youth programming and recreation activities;
  • Farm to school initiatives and nutrition education within Pennsylvania schools, and;
  • The political and social context of obesity prevention.

Working Group Members

  • Jessica M. Bagdonis – Then Graduate student, Rural Sociology
  • Dara Bloom – Graduate student, Rural Sociology
  • C. Clare Hinrichs – Associate Professor of Rural Sociology
  • Eric Jensen – Then Graduate student, Rural Sociology
  • Maryjo Oster – Then Graduate Student, Education Theory and Policy
  • Kai A. Schafft - Associate Professor, Education Policy Studies, Director, Center on Rural Education and Communities

Research Output (selected):

Schafft, K. A., Hinrichs, C., & Bloom, D. (2010). Pennsylvania farm-to-school programs and the articulation of local context.    Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition, 5(1), 23-40.

Schafft, K. A., Jensen, E. B., & Hinrichs, C. C. (2009) Food deserts and overweight schoolchildren: Evidence from Pennsylvania. Rural Sociology, 74(2), 153-177.

Bagdonis, J., Hinrichs, C. C., & Schafft, K. A. (2009). The emergence and framing of farm-to-school initiatives: Civic engagement, health and sustainable agriculture. Agriculture and Human Values, 26, 107-119.

Hinrichs, C. C., & Schafft, K. A., Bloom, D., & McHenry-Sorber, E.  (2008, November).  Growing the links between farm and school: A how-to guidebook for Pennsylvania farmers, schools and communities.  Harrisburg, PA: Center for Rural Pennsylvania.  Access at:

Hinrichs, C. C., & Schafft, K. A. (2008, November). Farm-to-school programs in Pennsylvania.   Harrisburg, PA: Center for Rural Pennsylvania. Access at: