06/07/2012 10:51 EDT | Updated 08/07/2012 05:12 EDT

Critics says Nova Scotia plan to battle childhood obesity lacks action

HALIFAX - A $2-million plan intended to reduce childhood obesity in Nova Scotia offers vague commitments and flies in the face of government cuts to education, the province's opposition parties and a teachers' union said Thursday.

Premier Darrell Dexter joined five cabinet ministers earlier in the day to announce the program, which is aimed at improving health and fitness levels of youths.

Dexter said the plan would include consultations with school boards on how to ensure school children receive 30 minutes of daily physical activity.

"We want to start shoving this forward as quickly as we can, whether it's after-school programs or schools themselves figuring out how they'll make it happen," Dexter said in an interview after the announcement.

The 34-point plan also calls for co-operation with municipal governments to give youths free access to rinks and other sports facilities. There will also be $340,000 set aside to encourage maternal health initiatives, which would include the hiring of a civil servant who would work with health authorities.

Shelley Morse, president-elect of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, said the announcement doesn't square with the reality of provincial budget education cuts.

"Whenever they have cuts, physical education, fine arts and music, those are the first to go," she said.

"Children get physical education twice a week, and it should be everyday. So if they're going to give us money, put it into the school day."

The government has reduced overall funding to the province's eight school boards by 1.3 per cent this year. The $13.4-million cut is on the heels of a $17.6-million reduction in funding last year.

The province's education minister has defended the cuts, citing dwindling enrolment levels.

"This is absolutely smoke and mirrors," Liberal health critic Leo Glavine said of Thursday's announcement.

"When you take millions of dollars out of education, that is going to have an enormous impact on the health and well-being of our children."

Tory health critic Chris d'Entremont expressed a similar lament.

"It was a little too cute. Why not get down to the brass tacks?" he said.

"We have a lot of very good people who are sitting in the Health Department and the Education Department and all of the departments of government who could very easily get going."

But Dexter said the program is a starting point with reachable goals.

"It's a realistic amount of money and it's a realistic group of goals to work towards," he said.

He said as the province's finances improve and consultations are completed, specific programs and tax credits aimed at improving children's health will be announced.

The province's chief public health officer said studies show about one-third of children between two and 17 years old in the province are either overweight or obese — one of the highest rates in the country.