UCC’s Healthy Latino Families initiative targets childhood obesity
First Lady Michelle Obama might want to call the United Community Center for advice on “Let’s Move,” her new nationwide campaign to eliminate childhood obesity. The near south side Milwaukee agency for Latinos and its affiliated Bruce Guadalupe Community School are years ahead of Mrs. Obama in tackling the root causes of childhood obesity.
The first lady’s campaign aims to end obesity in American children over the next decade by getting more nutrition and exercise information to parents, improving the quality of food in the nation’s schools, making healthy foods affordable for more families and paying closer attention to physical education and exercise.
UCC and Bruce Guadalupe, a kindergarten through 8th-grade charter school, got moving on those things five years ago with “Healthy Latino Families,” a nutrition and exercise initiative to reduce obesity in Latino children.
As it is for the rest of America, childhood obesity is an increasingly serious health concern at Bruce Guadalupe, says Rene Farias, associate executive director in charge of special projects at UCC. When the agency began following the issue five years ago, 32 percent of the student population was overweight or obese. That percentage is about 52 percent today.
To find out why, Healthy Latino Family researchers took a closer look at the school’s neighborhoods. They mapped out a high number of fast food joints, too few grocery stores selling fresh foods and a lack of safe, outdoor areas for children to run and play. Their findings resulted in a multi-pronged plan of attack on the causes of obesity.
First on the agenda was to get families involved in making lifestyle changes. To be clear, Healthy Latino Families is not a weight-loss program; the goal is “for children to grow up healthy and learn the long-term benefits of healthy habits,” says Angelica Delgado, UCC’s community research supervisor.
The initiative’s strategies include educating kids and families about smart food choices and the importance of physical fitness. To make the education fun, the school organized Wednesday family nights where children and parents take nutritious cooking classes and participate in Zumba dancing, floor hockey and other physical activities. For young children, UCC has created a series of photo novellas — large, brightly colored picture books — to teach the importance of eating healthy food and exercising.
Even the chef at Café el Sol, UCC’s Mexican restaurant, is involved in the project, working with nutritionists on a cookbook of healthy Latino recipes. Delgado says the book will be sent to Bruce Guadalupe families first, but UCC is seeking sponsorships to make the book available to the general public at a later time.
Farias says the Healthy Latino Families initiative wouldn’t be possible without its research partners at the Medical College, UWM and, more recently, UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health. In January, a UW research team led by Dr. Aaron Carrel received a $300,000 grant to further examine how family, school and community factors influence a child’s diet and physical activity. How the study will unfold at Bruce Guadalupe is still being determined, but the team hopes to provide middle school students with GPS units and cameras to document their weekly food choices and physical activity.
Carrel praised UCC and Bruce Guadalupe for working to improve the health of children in their own neighborhoods, adding that efforts to make healthy living “real and interesting to kids and their families will go a long way.”
Although Healthy Latino Families focuses on a specific population in Milwaukee, the project holds lessons for the rest of America. The United States spends $150 billion a year on treating obesity-related illnesses. As the nation looks for solutions to higher health care costs, reducing obesity rates in children not only saves money, it saves lives.