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Chula Vista School Educates Families To Combat Childhood Obesity

Local high school students help prepares the strawberry smoothies parents are sampled at Rice Elementary's first annual wellness fair in Chula Vista, May 18, 2012.
Kyla Calvert
Local high school students help prepares the strawberry smoothies parents are sampled at Rice Elementary's first annual wellness fair in Chula Vista, May 18, 2012.
Chula Vista School Educates Families To Combat Childhood Obesity
When Chula Vista doctors partnered with a local school to combat childhood obesity, they also set their sites on helping adults make healthier choices.

One Wednesday afternoon toward the end of May, the cafeteria at Rice Elementary School in Chula Vista was packed. Parents filled rows of seats for a cooking demonstration conducted in Spanish. The menu included fruit smoothies, a chicken salad and other quick, healthy foods kids are likely to enjoy.

The demonstration was part of the school’s first annual wellness fair. Fairs like it have been happening across the Chula Vista Elementary School District over the past year. In 2010 the district measured students’ height and weight. They found that in some schools up to 40 percent of the students were overweight or obese. Rice was one of those schools.

Now the whole school community is undergoing a health-focused transformation. They’re doing it in part with the help of doctors from the nearby Chula Vista Family Clinic.


One facet of their partnership has been helping adults model healthy behaviors for students, according to Dr. Shaila Serpas, who leads the partnership for the clinic.

“Rice was sort of a trial in how do we really support staff wellness and allowing staff to determine how to do that but then providing them support,” she said. “One example was they were looking for quick healthy recipes. Many of them with children themselves and busy days.”

That support led to some real changes, said the school’s secretary, Rosa Gonzalez. She said staff applaud each other for choosing healthier snacks and some even joined a gym together.

“What’s really neat is that, me for example, I was able to reduce medication dosage by dropping some weight and also exercising on a consistent basis,” she said.

Everyone involved in Rice’s wellness efforts points to Gonzalez as a champion of the new policies. She’s quick to remind parents, for instance that cakes and cookies are no longer allowed for class celebrations.


But there’s more to the partnership than new rules. Doctors training under Dr. Serpas started visiting Rice regularly in March. The heights and weights of nearly all the fourth and fifth graders were measured and about 40 percent were overweight or obese. The students also filled out surveys about diet and exercise. Those surveys showed trends that trouble Dr. Serpas.

“The reported amount of screen time, which exceeded three hours, was in at least a third of these fourth and fifth graders,” she said. “We discovered that they had concerns, at least half of them, about their weight and generally about their health. So thinking about that age group and how remarkable that is that they’re already having concerns about their health.”

Through the spring the trainees spread a simple message about healthy lifestyles labeled 5-2-1-0 through fourth and fifth grade physical education classes. The numbers stand for five fruits and vegetables, two or fewer hours of recreational television or computer time, one hour of physical activity and zero sugary drinks everyday.

Dr. Brian Snook was trying to spread the word even further about these simple guidelines at the wellness fair by creating healthy lifestyle prescriptions with parents after calculating their Body Mass Index -- a measure of healthy weight.

“We’re just getting parents to talk about what their habits are because a lot of times what family habits are influence kids habits,” he said. “And we can get the kids to bring up the conversation but if we can see Mom and Dad talking together and finding out, “Hey, you know, my BMI is a little bit high or I’m at a healthy weight or I’m eating well.' Then we’re also coming up with goals.”

Parents seemed to be taking to the message. Maria Ordones said, a little sheepishly, that there are things she knows her family can change.

“Well, we can feed ourselves better, not eat as much fat,” she said in Spanish. “Just eating more healthfully and doing exercise.”

Mom, Holly Alfaro, said she doesn’t think banning all sweet treats from the classroom is necessary – but she likes that the school is educating parents and students about health and nutrition.

“I think schools are a great place to start for a lot of parents who didn’t grow up with a healthy lifestyle because the information was not available, “ she said. “I think starting in our schools is going to help our adults to eat healthy as well. Even I’m learning different things. Like replacing mayonnaise with plain yogurt. I didn’t know we could do that as an alternative.”

Rice’s students seem less tuned into the fact that they’re learning about eating better and getting more exercise. Sixth grader Julie Casillas said the Zumba station was her favorite activity of the afternoon, but not because it’s a great calorie burner.

“Everybody’s enjoying themselves,” she said.

That’s the point, according to Principal Ernesto Villanueva.

“I can look over and see parents and teachers involved,” he said, pointing to the group following a Zumba instructor through the fast-paced dance moves. “I think that it’s changed maybe a little bit the way that we’re looking at exercise from something that I have to do, maybe by myself, or a chore into something that’s maybe much more exciting, a social time.”

At their national meeting in June, the American Medical Association voted to promote annual nutrition education of for the nation’s K-12 students to combat the country’s childhood obesity epidemic.

The group is urging doctors to create partnerships like the one at Rice to provide those lessons.

When school starts again at the end of July, Dr. Serpas and her trainees will be back at Rice following up with this year’s fourth and fifth grade parents to see if students and their families adopted any of the 5-2-1-0 guidelines at home.

The school district’s new wellness policy will also be in place. So many of the rules Rice families are already familiar with will apply to all schools.