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Working with Families to Address Childhood Obesity Issues


When a nonprofit in Idaho discovered that the children in their Head Start programs were three times as likely to be overweight or obese as other children in the state, they knew they had to take action.

“We recognized this as an immediate problem, and as the largest organization serving Latinos in this state, we knew we had to do something,” said Rebecca de León, Communications Director for the Community Council of Idaho (CC Idaho). The organization runs 10 Head Start centers for migrant and seasonal farmworker children and their families that are located primarily in agricultural communities across Idaho. The centers provide support for early education, nutrition, and health wellness.

This year, with the help of a grant from Cambia Health Foundation, CC Idaho is piloting an innovative childhood obesity program at four of its Head Start Centers. The pilot program is using a curriculum developed by UCLA Anderson Graduate School of Management in partnership with Johnson & Johnson. The curriculum aims at educating both students and their parents on healthy eating and the importance of exercise.

“The curriculum touched on nutrition and exercise, but did not provide comprehensive education regarding healthy life choices,” explained de León. “We have partnered with the University of Idaho to adapt the UCLA curriculum to be more comprehensive and culturally sensitive to the demographic we serve.”

Children are taught about embracing nutritious food and choosing fun physical activities. They educate parents on basic childcare, including healthy food options and how to incorporate exercise into their children’s daily lives. They encourage families to participate in the program with incentives, such as passes to the Idaho Athletic Club, yoga mats, crockpots and other items to encourage exercise and healthy cooking. Staff also conduct home visits with participating families to track progress and create individualized support in their own homes.

The University of Idaho is gathering data throughout the year at two of the four centers running the pilot program in the hopes that the curriculum can be refined and improved to further target the needs of Idaho’s farmworker population and Head Start's parameters.  Using this data from the first year, CC Idaho plans to adjust the curriculum to be culturally sensitive for Hispanic families, and make it available in both Spanish and English, and not require a high level of literacy.

“So far, we have about 90 participants, and the reception has been very good. The parents are engaged in the trainings, asking questions, and complying with requested health marker gathering,“ said de León. “The eagerness of the families to learn about it is encouraging, and we hope to develop a program that is successful enough to distribute to a wider Latino audience. Our greatest challenge right now is piloting the program and learning what works best.”

Hispanic populations in Idaho and other states are more likely to suffer from certain health and weight issues than other groups. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health issued data that shows Hispanics are 1.7 times more likely to have diabetes than non-Hispanics and 50 percent more likely to die of it. Hispanics have higher rates of obesity than non-Hispanic Whites, and Mexican-Americans suffer disproportionately from diabetes.

According to a University of Idaho report in 2014, Hispanic households in Idaho are 65 percent more likely to be food insecure—meaning that it’s more difficult for those households to access healthy and affordable foods. In 2012, the U.S. Census bureau reported that 25.4 percent of Hispanics were living at the poverty level, compared to 11 percent of non-Hispanic Whites.

The Community Council of Idaho hopes that by the second year of the program the curriculum will help spread awareness and education among Hispanic populations across the country, and assist in successfully minimizing the risks of obesity and diabetes in high-risk populations.