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$4.8 million study will fight child obesity in California

UC Davis professor Adela de la Torre, a national expert on Chicano and Latino health issues, today received a five-year, $4.8 million federal grant to discover the best ways to help Mexican-heritage children in California maintain healthy weights.

The study, called "Ninos Sanos, Familia Sana" (Healthy Children, Healthy Family), will take place in the Central Valley towns of Firebaugh and San Joaquin.

"More than four in every 10 children born to parents of Mexican heritage are overweight or obese, and therefore at greater risk of early diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease," said de la Torre. "We are fortunate that we have received unprecedented support to tackle this issue from community members, so that we can build a healthier environment in Firebaugh and San Joaquin.

"We hope that this is the beginning of a series of long-term, collaborative projects to tackle issues of importance raised by our community advisory board."

UC Davis was one of 24 institutions selected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) in a national competition for $80 million in grants to address obesity in children ages 2 through 8.

"We know that for our children to grow up and win the future, they need nutritious diets and healthy lifestyles that enable them to reach their fullest potential," said Roger Beachy, director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. "USDA supports the research and development of science-based methods that can reverse the trend of rising obesity and assist children and their families in adopting healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime."

In the UC Davis "Ninos Sanos, Familia Sana" study, 400 Firebaugh children and their families will be provided with practical tools, education and incentives to help them eat healthy diets and get sufficient exercise.

The Firebaugh program activities include:

  • $25 monthly in vouchers that can be used to buy fruits and vegetables at participating markets;

  • Family Nights that include parent education about children's nutrition needs and physical activity;

  • Classroom instruction for children on nutrition and physical activity;

  • Two health screenings yearly to monitor body mass index, skinfold thickness and waist circumference; and

  • A community art project with murals and posters promoting healthy eating and active living.

Concurrently, in San Joaquin, a similar number of children will receive the health screenings. In addition, their parents will be provided workshops on topics such as "How to support your children in school" and "Strategies to help your child prepare for college." However, the San Joaquin group will not receive the more intensive intervention.

(After both towns had agreed to take part in the study, a random card-draw determined that Firebaugh would be the intervention group and San Joaquin would be the control group.)

At the study's end, UC Davis researchers will analyze the results to see which strategies worked best.

"This intervention study will be one of the first of its kind in the nation for Latino children between the ages of 3 and 8 and, hopefully, will help us target what really works in sustaining healthy eating and exercise for Latino families with young children," said de la Torre.

The "Ninos Sanos, Familia Sana" study collaborators come from a rich cross-section of the community, and include key people who influence children's eating habits and activity levels.

Among them are parents who have volunteered to have their families take part; grocery stores (Firebaugh Market, Carniceria y Panaderia Joana's and San Joaquin Foodland); health clinics (Sablan Medical Clinic); 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).

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.

For Richard Green, an agricultural economist at UC Davis and the study's econometrician, there are both professional and personal connections to the study. "The intervention project is important to me because it allows me to use my economic and econometric knowledge to help improve a major obesity related health issue facing Mexican-origin children in the San Joaquin Valley," Green said.

"And I have a personal interest in this intervention project because I have two grandchildren whose father was born in Mexico, and they have similar health issues related to their diets and lack of physical activity. It is a fascinating research project and I expect to learn some valuable lessons from our approach."

Throughout the study, a community advisory committee consisting of school, community and parent representatives will meet regularly to provide feedback on program strategies, approaches, concerns and solutions to barriers, de la Torre said.

Firebaugh city manager Jose Antonio Ramirez said: "We are thrilled that we were chosen for this multiyear grant to initiate the planning of a community-based intervention program to improve nutrition among children, especially because it will include parental, school and community components."

Lucia Kaiser, a Cooperative Extension specialist in the UC Davis nutrition department and a co-investigator on the "Ninos Sanos, Familia Sana" study, said, "This project is an exciting opportunity to pull a multidisciplinary University of California team of social scientists and other professionals to work in partnership with an underserved community to address a pressing health problem -- childhood obesity."

De la Torre is an agricultural economist who has studied Latino health issues in the United States and Mexico for more than 25 years.

She is the chair of the UC Davis Department of Chicana/o Studies and director of the university's Center for Transnational Health.

Her current research focuses on Chicano/Latino health issues, U.S.-Mexico binational health; and disparities in health and science education for Mexican-heritage children in California. ("Mexican-heritage" refers to individuals who are born in Mexico, whose parents were born in Mexico or whose grandparents were born in Mexico.) Much of de la Torre's funded research has been supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the state of California and private foundations.

She is co-editor of a new book, "Speaking from the Body: Latinas on Health and Culture," a collection of personal reflections on health care experiences from Latina patients or their family caregivers or friends. She is author of the books "Sana, Sana: Mexican Americans and Health" (2001) and "Moving From the Margins: A Chicana's View of Public Policy" (2002).


Contact: Adela de la Torre
University of California - Davis

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