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Fighting Childhood Obesity In The Central Valley

'The irony here is that their parents may harvest vegetables in the fields -- some of the richest agricultural land anywhere in the world -- but their children rarely share in this bounty,' de la Torre said

Curbing obesity among Mexican-heritage children in California’s Central Valley is the focus of a new center set to open its doors Thursday in the Fresno County town of Firebaugh.

Called “Ninos Sanos, Familia Sana” (Healthy Children, Health Family), the center is a collaborative effort of the University of California, Davis, the University of California Cooperative Extension, and local communities and organizations.

“Opening this center really gives us an opportunity to work with the community — to be there for children and families and show we are committed to promoting good nutrition and physical activity,” said Adela de la Torre, professor of Chicana/o studies and director of the Center for Transnational Health at UC Davis. “We want to help them learn the best approaches to preventing obesity now and in the long term.”

Part of a five-year, $4.8 million study aimed at identifying effective approaches to combating obesity, the center will address a problem that affects more than four in 10 children born to parents of Mexican heritage, putting them at greater risk of early diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Planning for the study, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, began last year. The study will conclude in 2016.

During the study, 400 Firebaugh children and their families will receive practical tools, education and incentives to help them eat healthy diets and get sufficient exercise. Interventions will include:

  • $25 monthly in vouchers for families to buy fruits and vegetables at participating markets;
  • classroom instruction for children on nutrition and physical activity;
  • 10 family education nights per year in which parents will learn how to select and use fresh ingredients to prepare healthy meals for themselves and their children; and
  • twice-yearly health screenings to monitor weight, blood pressure, body-mass index, skinfold thickness and waist circumference.

At the same time, 400 children and families in the town of San Joaquin will receive:

  • twice-yearly health screenings
  • a series of forums designed to assist parents in supporting their children’s education

The San Joaquin community will also benefit from these outreach

  • UC Davis will collaborate with area schools to enrich the science curriculum.
  • A community mural project will depict the rich cultural heritage and history of the community. (The mural, painted on an outdoor wall of a community learning center in San Joaquin, will be unveiled on Sunday, Sept. 16).

At the study’s conclusion, de la Torre and her research colleagues will have data to show whether the food vouchers and health education programs tested in Firebaugh are effective, using San Joaquin as a control. San Joaquin families and schools will then receive much of the same intervention used in Firebaugh, with assistance from UC Cooperative Extension specialists.

Both Firebaugh and San Joaquin are located in Congressional District 20, an area with the nation’s lowest human development index, an international measurement of wellbeing based on longevity, standard of living and other factors.

“The irony here is that their parents may harvest vegetables in the fields — some of the richest agricultural land anywhere in the world — but their children rarely share in this bounty,” de la Torre said. “We need to provide better access to fresh vegetables and fruit in stores and teach these families how to prepare these foods in easy and convenient ways, to make these good foods part of their lives. That is what this program is about.”

An agricultural economist, de la Torre has studied Latino health issues in the U.S. and Mexico for more than 25 years.

Throughout the study, an advisory committee made up of school, community and parent representatives from each community will provide feedback on program strategies, approaches, concerns and solutions to the barriers that prevent children from maintaining healthy weights.

Participants include parents who have volunteered to have their families take part; grocery stores; health professionals (Sablan Medical Clinics); a nonprofit, community-based program of promotoras, or outreach workers (Proteus, Inc.); school teachers and administrators (Firebaugh-Las Deltas Unified School District and Golden Plains Unified School District in San Joaquin).

Also participating are about 20 educational specialists, economists, nutritionists, psychologists, physicians, and graduate and undergraduate students from UC Davis and the University of California Cooperative Extension.

Lucia Kaiser, Cooperative Extension specialist in the UC Davis Department of Nutrition and a co-investigator on the study, said:

“This project is an exciting opportunity for UC Davis and UC Cooperative Extension to pull a multidisciplinary team of social scientists, nutritionists and other professionals to work in partnership with an underserved community to prevent a pressing health problem — childhood obesity.”

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