Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News
Elias Pate, left, Bryan Young and Steven Greenstreet are in the process of completing their documentary titled "Killer at Large."

Could No Child Left Behind be making kids fat?

According to a documentary directed by former Brigham Young University film student Steven Greenstreet, the way schools have reacted to the federal law contributes to a national childhood obesity epidemic. So do a lot of other factors that play out on the schools' stages.

Greenstreet, director of the award-winning documentary "This Divided State," about filmmaker Michael Moore's 2004 visit to Utah Valley State College, is putting the finishing touches on the film, "Killer at Large," produced by ShineBox Media Productions in Salt Lake City. The film, which Greenstreet plans to submit to 30 festivals, explores childhood obesity in America.

A dozen schoolteachers interviewed for the film said the federal No Child Left Behind policy is part of the problem, Greenstreet said. Vending machine junk food, what some call lax USDA school lunch standards, overpriced produce also are fingered as contributors, among a slew of other factors.

Utah health and education leaders tend to agree.

"We're finding that with increased pressure to perform well on academic tests there is actually less emphasis, according to reports from teachers, on physical education and health-related topics, primarily at elementary school," said Frank Wojtech, physical education director for the State Department of Education. "I think the health of children is the most important goal of the schools, especially when we're looking at the epidemic of obesity and Type II diabetes and all the psychological problems that come with being obese at a young age."

More than 22 percent of elementary school students were overweight or at risk of being overweight in 2006, according to the Utah Department of Health.

Obesity and related illnesses kill more than 100,000 Americans a year and cost taxpayers $117 billion in 2002 alone, states the film, citing the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

Obesity could lead to crises in health care and national security, former Surgeon General Richard Carmona says at the film's onset.

"I don't think people know the half of the immensity of the problem," Greenstreet said in a Wednesday interview with the Deseret Morning News.

"Killer at Large" aims to change that.

The film opens with a 12-year-old girl undergoing a liposuction, interviews and speeches from across the country that range from former President Bill Clinton to the author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," teachers to clergy.

Filmmakers, who include producers Bryan Young and Elias Pate, say the U.S. Department of Education told them No Child Left Behind "in no way contributes to obesity and anyone who would claim to the contrary has been misinformed." But the way schools have responded to the law plays into it, others say.

"What we're finding more and more is this is an issue of environment. And if you create unhealthy environments, or you don't provide opportunities for there to be a healthy environment, then you're going to contribute to increased overweight and obesity," Dr. Richard Bullough, director of the Utah Department of Health's Diabetes Prevention and Control Program, told the Deseret Morning News.

The new state core curriculum recommends elementary school students get 150 minutes a week of physical activity. But some schools may put in just a fifth of that, said Wojtech.

"We've done surveys, and most teachers consider it to be important; they just either don't have the time or don't feel confident enough to accomplish a physical education task during the day," he said.

Elementary school teachers receive little or no P.E. training in college, Wojtech said.

A Murray High coach in the documentary says he sees students lacking basic motor skills for running. Others criticize what they call lax federal school lunch nutritional standards and vending machine junk food in schools that lead to unhealthy eating habits, filmmakers said.

The Utah State Board of Education has pondered vending machine sales for months and even moved toward banning junk food in them. But after Coke and Pepsi executives relayed industry efforts to phase out sugar-laden drinks for diet sodas and waters, the board backed off. The current proposal, up for a vote Friday, only requires school districts to create policies, which may or may not ban junk food.

Schools, communities and government agencies are working to address the problem, experts told the Deseret Morning News.

The State Office of Education is planning a three-day health and physical education workshop for elementary school teachers. The health department's Gold Medal Schools program has several elementary participants incorporating physical activity into the school day. Some elementaries have their own P.E. specialists, or community members trained to lead physical activity in the school day, Wojtech said.

The health department's blueprint for change aims to cut the number of overweight children by 10 percent by 2010. Efforts target the family, community, health care system, media, government and schools and include boosting pedestrian and bike routes, encouraging grocers to donate fresh produce to local food banks, developing physical activity requirements in all grades, and monitoring school foods.

But the filmmakers believe schools would get the biggest boost from legislation.

"Nothing but a law is going to get sugar out of our schools, ever," Pate said.

"We're not saying ban this stuff; we're saying, let's shuffle our priorities," Greenstreet said. "Let's show people something better. Let's educate people on what is good food."