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Latino Childhood Obesity: Seeking Solutions At Home And At School

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September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, and organizations such as the National Council of La Raza, the Leadership for Healthy Communities and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation are taking a closer look at the challenges Latino children in particular face.

According to the National Council of La Raza, there are more than 16 million Latino children under the age of 18 living in the United States. The number of Latino children has increased by 30 percent since 2000 and doubled since 1990, making them one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. population. And as of May 2010, 38.2 percent of Hispanic children ages 2 to 19 were overweight or obese, compared with 31.7 percent of all children, according to the Leadership for Healthy Communities.

The National Council of La Raza reports that one out of two Latino children born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes. "That is the statistic that should be our wake-up call,” said Jennifer Ng'andu, deputy director of the council's health policy project, where she oversees efforts to improve the health status and outcomes of Latinos through national policy change.

Latinos are especially at risk because their communities often lack access to affordable healthy foods, according to the Leadership for Healthy Communities. Hispanic neighborhoods have one-third as many chain supermarkets as other neighborhoods.

"This is not just a health and exercise issue. This is an academic and social justice issue. This is about making sure people have access to information and resources so that they can make healthy choices," said Ng'andu.

THE HOME IS KEY

Dharma Cortes, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts, is one of a number of people investigating the problem of Latino childhood obesity with a grant from Salud America!, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation project. Cortes' study seeks a better understanding of how Latino families buy their food in order to develop social marketing messages that can teach people how to make wiser food decisions.

The key to fighting this health crisis is improving Latino families' knowledge about nutrition, she said. The study gives the families money to go grocery shopping and then collects the receipts to do a nutritional analysis. Salud America! calculates the calories and nutritional value per dollar.

In addition, Cortes said, "We give them digital cameras to document their food environment at home, and then we collect the photos from the children and ask them what happened."

Afterward, families are debriefed on what the researchers learned and educated on portion control and balanced diets. "They are always shocked by the lack of nutritional value in their daily diets," said Cortes. But they gain a better understanding of what they are buying and how to make healthy changes.

At the end of the study, the families are given money to go grocery shopping again in order to see if they make different choices. (The project takes into account the families' limited budgets.)

SCHOOL CHOICES

While the home is critical, it is not the only battleground. According to the Leadership for Healthy Communities, Hispanic high school students have more access to fast food at school than other students: "Fast food is at their disposal two days per week versus white students who only have that option once a week."

Educational steps are being taken by the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation, which created the Alliance for a Healthier Generation to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic by 2015. The alliance's website says it works to "positively affect the places that can make a difference in a child's health: homes, schools, doctor's offices, and communities." With more than $50 million in support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, it runs the Healthy Schools Program, which launched in February 2006 and now has partnerships with more than 12,000 schools across the country.

With the help of the Healthy Schools Program, Memorial High School became the "Healthiest School in America." The school is located in West New York, N.J., which has the third highest percentage of Hispanics in the state (78.1 percent) and accounts for 2.5 percent of New Jersey's Hispanic population, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

"We needed to change the culture and the way our kids exercised and ate," said Sal Valenza, the school's food service director, who coined the phrase, "Culture. Not Cookies."

Memorial High School now has made-to-order salad bowls and whole wheat pizza -- and no more french fries. It also increased physical opportunities for staff and students before and after school. The school offers nutrition classes and eliminated candy and soda from all fundraisers.

The school is aiming to give its students the tools to make healthy decisions when they leave school as well. If they bring the message home to their parents, then the parents will make the right decisions, said Valenza.

A statement released by the Healthy Schools Program announcing Memorial High School's achievement quoted John Fraraccio, the school district's supervisor of health and physical education:

"Changing the culture of a school doesn't happen overnight," said John Fraraccio, "If you come in one day and say everything is going to change, it's not going to work. After four years of using the tools and resources provided by the Healthy Schools Program, wellness is now an integral part of not only Memorial's culture, but the culture of the entire district."

Fraraccio also made a personal commitment to a healthier lifestyle, but without completely eliminating the foods that bring his community together.

"I'm not giving up white rice!" he said. "I'm an Italian American, but I'm married to a Cuban-Puerto Rican woman. I love [white rice] and won't eat brown rice. But it's about portion control and making the right decisions."

These healthy lifestyle changes helped Fraraccio to lose 40 pounds and, in turn, served as motivation for one of his students, Max.

"You could just tell that he wanted to be better. He wanted to be different, and he knew he had to make a change in his life," said Fraraccio.

Fraraccio said Max weighed 315 pounds in the eighth grade. When he started high school, he couldn't swim and he finished last in a two-mile run. But he wanted to play sports. With self-motivation and with encouragement from Fraraccio, Max lost over 100 pounds during his four years at Memorial High School. He ended up on the tennis and football teams. He became senior class president and captain of the swim team.

The hope is that Max's success can be repeated many times over.

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