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Family Brings School’s Health Message Home

Aired 6/19/13 on KPBS News.

With the National Childhood Obesity Conference convening in Long Beach, we check in on a San Diego County school district’s efforts to combat obesity and bring healthy habits into its schools.

— About a year ago, kids swarmed a stage on the Rice Elementary School campus in Chula Vista. A Zumba instructor led them through aerobic dance moves while parents looked on or joined in the fun. The dancing was part of the school’s first wellness fair – a celebration to cap their semester of being the testing ground for new district-wide health policies that Principal Ernesto Villanueva characterized as ambitious.

Evita Sawyers chops sausage to add to her family's vegetable-packed spaghetti sauce in the kitchen of her Chula Vista apartment, May 31, 2013.

“We are really expanding the definition of what it means to be a student at our school,” he said.

Villanueva took over as principal in the middle of last year and stepped into an experiment. Chula Vista Elementary School District’s new health policies banned birthday cupcakes and pizza parties as rewards. Nachos fundraisers were out and a salad bar in the cafeteria was in. And school messages about healthy eating and exercise were everywhere, including in newsletters for parents.

“We’re saying, how do we all come together to be good role models for our students but also, good role models when we go back home?" Villanueva said. "It doesn’t really work very well when we’re talking about nutrition and we’re sitting at a local fast food joint.”

The new rules were spurred by a 2010 survey of students’ height and weight. The district found nearly 40 percent were overweight or obese. The numbers were worst at schools like Rice – that serve lower-income families in neighborhoods that lack parks and have more crime.

Some parents at Rice worried a focus on health would stunt the school’s academic growth. But for Evita Sawyers, whose twin sons were in kindergarten at the time, the weight disparity was alarming.

“When I heard the statistic, it really did it – I was like ‘Man, that’s terrible,’" she said. "So when they were talking about doing all of these things, I was totally, completely on board. To have those resources available, to be able to learn ways to make your life healthier, I thought it was wonderful.”

Making their lives healthier is exactly what Sawyers and her husband Kevin set out to do with their 6-year-old sons Darius and Demetrius and younger daughter Vivian. That has meant fewer nights eating out and more nights like a recent Friday evening in the Sawyer’s apartment.

“So we’re making spaghetti but we use whole wheat pasta and ground turkey, ground beef and then I put a lot of vegetables in the sauce,” she said.

As Sawyers chopped mounds of peppers and onions and shredded carrots, she said their health efforts were kick-started at Rice. But when their son Darius was diagnosed with a brain tumor earlier this year, they took on more importance.

“We’re just trying to practice what we preach and stuff," she said. "And then just being focused, especially with everything’s that going on with my son – just trying to be focused on being healthier overall because it’s so important because we need to be well to deal with him.”

Taking care of Darius fills much of Sawyers' time and her husband Kevin works full time, but they haven’t let that be an obstacle. Tonight, Sawyers cooks and her husband tends to Darius who is lying on the living room couch recovering from a round of chemotherapy. In the midst of all this, Demitrius and Vivian horse around while watching a movie.

Demetrius likes the dinners his parents make, even if they take a little longer to prepare.

“I like some spaghetti and some of her chicken and rice,” he said.

And 3-year-old Vivian is on board with new family guidelines that treats are for special occasions, like a recent birthday.

“Happy birthday is when you eat cake,” she reported.

Sawyers conceded healthier options can also cost more at the grocery store.

“I think if you kind of add up not going out to eat, not buying a lot of junky, snacky foods and stuff, it kind of evens out," she said. "I think if you try to buy the things that are on sale...and just try to buy the vegetables and things that are on sale.”

The changes are paying off.

“My husband and I have been running a lot more. We ran our first 5K recently," she said. "So, that’s been good – I’ve lost about 35 pounds. My husband’s lost about 20.”

It hasn’t been easy or fun all the time. But that’s exactly why the Sawyers think making the changes is important now.

“For my kids, I want healthy eating and being active and being focused on their body to not even be something they have to think about or struggle with,” she said.

More families across Chula Vista may be coming to the same conclusion. When the school district released the results of their second height and weight survey earlier this year, the percentage of students who were overweight or obese declined by three percentage points. That drop far outpaces slight declines seen statewide.

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