Project to Reduce Obesity Nationwide Starts With Kids in Imperial County

Children help plant a community garden funded by the Imperial County Childhood Obesity Project. Photo: Courtesy of the Our Choice program.
Children help plant a community garden funded by the Imperial County Childhood Obesity Project. Photo: courtesy of the Childhood Obesity Project.

Children love pulling fresh carrots out of the garden or picking berries off a bush. It’s fun to eat food they have grown themselves.

The Imperial County Childhood Obesity Project is funding community and school gardens in hopes that kids who enjoy gardening will eat more fruits and vegetables, and ultimately slim down.

The $6 million research project, conducted by San Diego State University, is also beefing up school physical education departments, providing family wellness workshops on nutrition and exercise, and having pediatricians work with families to set healthy eating goals for young patients.

Also known as Our Choice/Nuestra Opcion, the research project is one of three studies nationwide funded by the Affordable Care Act to determine the best, most cost-effective strategies to prevent and lower obesity in low-income children.  The other projects are in Massachusetts and Texas. What’s distinctive about the studies is that they are all trying interventions on multiple levels — not only working with children and their families directly but with their communities and schools to promote healthy behaviors. The studies began in 2011 and conclude in 2015 with results expected shortly after that.

In Imperial County, 1,184 children ages 2 to 11 and their parents are participating in the research project. It hasn’t been the easiest task to get  the families, who live in Calexico, Brawley and El Centro, to make healthy lifestyle changes.

“It can be challenging to tell parents, ‘Don’t stop at McDonald’s and get the $1 meal deal,’” said Jamie Moody, project director. “They want to know what other options there are that are inexpensive and quick.”

Imperial County, located on the Mexican border, was selected for the study because of its high childhood obesity rate of 39 percent and its low-income population.  The unemployment rate is 22 percent as compared to 7.4 percent statewide.

Vincent Zazueta, a master gardener in El Centro who is participating in the Our Choice program, said poverty makes it difficult for those in the area to access the highest quality food.

“Even though I’m a backyard organic garden farmer, I shop at Food 4 Less,” said Zazueta, who has created gardens for the program. “I can’t afford organic. It’s still expensive.”

Though the county is a top agricultural producer of spinach, potatoes, cauliflower and broccoli, many residents don’t know how to garden.  Zazueta, who has an agricultural science degree from the University of California at Davis, likes sharing his skills with the children.

“What we’re doing is exactly what our grandmas did,” he said. “We’re trying to get people to eat the food our grandmas ate. The joke is if our grandma didn’t know what the food is, you shouldn’t eat it.”

Community health workers are trying to get local kids moving more by ramping up physical education classes in schools. At McKinley Elementary School in El Centro, Our Choice paid for more equipment — like jump ropes, hula hoops and balls — and more training for the teachers.

As in many elementary schools, McKinley has no specialist P.E. teachers. The regular teachers have to fit in P.E. alongside all the academic subjects. In the past, exercise tended to fall by the wayside.

But with the changes, the instructors are more motivated said teacher Esther Green.  Each teacher received a tub with equipment and a simple list of activities of what to do with it.  Every two weeks the tubs rotate and the students get to use new equipment.

The school started a new policy of having all the students have P.E. at the same time.  Seeing other teachers out there increased participation, Green said. The students got excited too.

“They’re out there and they’re all running,” Green said. “They say, ‘I can’t wait until I get the parachute,’ ‘I can’t wait until I get the softball.’ They look forward to the games.”

Patti Weeks, the principal at McKinley, said she is glad physical education is getting the respect it deserves. “It’s part of a healthy lifestyle and it’s part of education,” she said. “Kids learn better when they’re physically active. It’s absolutely helped us.”

Aurora Preschool Center, another El Centro participant in the study, is making a concerted effort to promote healthy behaviors. Araceli Gomez, the site supervisor, said she has encouraged the parents to drink water flavored with lemon instead of sugary drinks.  She gives the parents ideas of free activities they can do with their kids, like imitate animal movements or hop on one foot.

“They are losing weight here at school because they are constantly in movement,” she said. “They do physical movement inside the classroom and outside the classroom.”

Imperial County health clinics participating in the child obesity study have also set up an obesity chronic-care system. Pediatricians follow up with patients with weight problems to set goals.

Then community health workers invite the families to a series of wellness workshops and physical activity sessions. Families also receive 12 newsletters with each focusing on a different aspect of healthy living. Advice includes getting enough sleep, moving the TV out of the bedroom and reducing screen time.

Calexico resident Jose Perez wrote a letter praising Our Choice for helping him raise his 5-year-old son in the healthiest way possible. “The program has helped him especially in drinking lots of water and little by little drinking less sugary drinks,” he wrote.

Moody said it’s a challenge for the mostly Latino community to accept obesity as a problem. Parents sometimes think their children have a healthier weight than they actually do. And sometimes even if they do think their child is overweight, they don’t view it as a problem.

It’s not like diabetes, which the community accepts as a serious issue, Moody said.  “They don’t see obesity as a cause of people dying even though it’s related,” she said.

However, Moody said there are many in the community who are ready to make healthy changes and encourage others to do.

“There’s a lot of passionate people in the community, very much wanting to support the community,” she said. “It’s very refreshing working with the different community organizations.”

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