Fighting obesity through the power of parents
New health program for kids and families to launch in East Palo Alto
A year and a half after Stanford University and Head Start banded together to curb East Palo Alto's rising childhood-obesity problem, officials are ready to launch a program that has put the city's parents in the driver's seat of the epidemic.
Healthy Weight, Healthy Futures is a six-month-long education program designed by parents for parents on how to keep their kids active while indoors -- when the outdoors is unsafe -- and cook healthy ethnic food when grocery stores are few and far between.
The pilot program will kick off in September, with a group of 20 to 25 parents, said Janine Bishop, community liaison for Stanford's Pediatric Advocacy Program. The goal is to turn those parents into educators, who can then teach more classes to other parents.
Health and education experts say they face a multitude of challenges when implementing new programs in East Palo Alto, including parents with limited transportation and time. Many programs have also simply missed the mark culturally on what parents in the city truly need, they said.
Bishop and Lisa Chamberlain, Stanford's director of Pediatric Advocacy, wanted to clear those hurdles and create a program that would work. Along with Edith Wu, of Head Start East Palo Alto, they decided to spend the 2005 year talking to parents in the city to see what the needs are.
"Food and activity are completely intertwined with culture and the neighborhoods in which you live," Chamberlain said during an interview this week. "What may work for parents in Palo Alto may not work for parents in East Palo Alto. The experts who come up with the solutions reside in the community, not here at Stanford."
The idea for such an undertaking stemmed from the staggering rates of children who are overweight or obese in East Palo Alto, mostly because of unhealthy eating habits and sedentary behaviors.
In 2005, for example, only 5 percent of seventh-graders in the Ravenswood City School District in East Palo Alto passed all the state's fitness standards on the annual exam. That same year, 39 percent of all seventh-graders in the Palo Alto Unified School District passed all the standards.
Programs to curb the overweight epidemic among adolescents have sprung up in East Palo Alto and across the state. However, the resources for preschool aged children have not. Healthy Weight, Healthy Futures focuses on kids when they're 3 to 5 years old, giving parents a foundation for preventing problems in adolescence, Bishop said.
With a $33,000 planning grant from the San Mateo County First 5 Commission, which promotes early-childhood development programs, Head Start East Palo Alto and the Pediatric Advocacy Program began meeting with a handful of parents on a regular basis.
Organizers critiqued a variety of existing nutrition and physical-education programs with the parents, who found many cultural barriers that would keep them and their peers from sticking to a program's guidelines.
Many of the nutrition programs, for example, give parents tips for how to make healthy American food. Parents in these planning discussions said they mostly shopped at nearby Latino markets, which they said do not carry a wide variety of healthy foods or fresh fruit and vegetables. Nearly 60 percent of East Palo Alto's population is Latino or Hispanic, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.
Parents said they would need help with transportation to the larger grocery stores because there isn't one in East Palo Alto.
Cost is also an issue.
"To make healthy foods, it's expensive, too," one parent said.
Blending the parents' needs and existing curricula, the Healthy Weight, Healthy Futures program will include a variety of nutrition classes on portion size, food labels, healthy choices and cooking that incorporate traditional Latino foods.
This is especially important because the parents, who were mostly moms, said their families -- specifically their husbands -- would appreciate healthy food more if it was Mexican and Latin American cuisine.
"For anything to be really acceptable and sustainable to parents, there has to be ownership and it really has to be applicable," Bishop said. "We're hoping we have a better chance (at success) by asking them first."
Healthy Weight, Healthy Futures will also use an innovative and culturally appropriate mode for physical education. Parents said the parks and other outdoor recreation areas, even their own front yards, are too dangerous for their children.
"Last time I went with my kids (to the park), there were some gang bangers doing drugs," another parent said during a planning session. "That's (a) bad thing because now we cannot even go out to the parks, but that is because of where we live."
The physical-education classes will incorporate activities parents can do at home with their children, such as aerobics and yoga. The aerobics will also incorporate Latin dance, giving the children an opportunity to learn traditional Latin songs and games.
Some of the ideas Bishop brought to the parents just didn't work, and in some cases the parents needed more convincing.
Parents, for example, said they could not participate in the national TV-Turnoff Week because with such limited outside opportunities, the television is sometimes the children's only recreation.
At first, parents were also not interested in having a nutritionist visit their homes because they would have to clean up and alter their eating habits to impress their guest. But when Bishop told the parents the nutritionist was there to help, they warmed up to the idea.
Bishop hopes to hold the first parent-led class in October, after a few weeks of the pilot program. The Pediatric Advocacy Program received a $10,000 grant from General Mills to launch the peer-to-peer part of the program.
"We're obviously going to find out if this is really realistic or not," she said. "I've got my fingers crossed."
Staff Writer Alexandria Rocha can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.