Supporting Healthy Latino Youth from Within The Community

May 4, 2016, 11:00 AM, Posted by John Govea

Latino youth continue to have higher obesity rates than their African-American and white peers, making leadership within Latino communities essential to building a Culture of Health.

Praxina Guerra, a fifth grader at Five Palms Elementary School in San Antonio, is proving that even a kid can change the health and well-being of other children for the better.

Praxina is truly a passionate champion for creating a healthier school environment. She became a student ambassador for the San Antonio Mayor’s Fitness Council, and started a group called Praxina’s Pals to come up with a plan to encourage her fellow students to make healthier choices.

With help from their Physical Education teacher Cathy Lopez, Praxina and her peers tried to figure out what healthy changes her fellow students wanted to see. Their first priority was to raise money for a hydration station in the cafeteria so students could have water during lunch. In order to do so, Lopez and Praxina secured a grant from the Mayor’s Council, an effort to turn San Antonio into one of the healthiest, most active communities in the country. They also built support among members of the school board and city council. Their efforts eventually paid off. Now, all students at Five Palms have a healthier choice during meals. Simultaneously, Praxina and her friends launched a monthly, hour-long Wellness Wednesday program which creates both time and space after school for students and parents to engage in physical activity together.

Nearly nine out of ten students at Five Palms Elementary are Latino, and the surrounding community is very supportive of efforts to improve student health and wellness. Teacher and student advocates together are working on ways to spread these efforts both within the school, as well as in the local neighborhood.

Our grantee program Salud America! has identified dozens of uplifting success stories like these―stories of Latino champions who are taking real, substantive steps to build a Culture of Health in their schools and communities. We need more of them.

Efforts like these are contributing to the nation’s momentum in helping all children grow up at a healthy weight. The national childhood obesity rate has leveled off, and cities and states that have committed themselves to making comprehensive changes are seeing real signs of progress. As communities work to make it easier for children and families to access healthy foods and be active, they are seeing their obesity rates decline. This is encouraging news. The efforts of families, schools, businesses and government leaders are paying off.

But we are not seeing this progress among all children. Latino and African-American youth continue to have higher obesity rates than their white peers. Nearly 39 percent of Latino youth are overweight or obese, compared to 32 percent of black youth, and 28 percent of white youth. This puts them at greater risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain forms of cancer from a younger age. These disparities are persisting, and we must continue confronting them to make true progress.

New Mexico is a perfect example of this struggle. The obesity rate among third graders in the state has dropped significantly, from 22.6 percent in 2010 to 19.9 percent in 2013. But Latino students make up the majority of students in the state, and their obesity rate held steady. In its report, the state called those results, “particularly troubling.”

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is committed to improving health equity throughout all of our work. As our president and CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey said in her annual message, “Equity is essential. Our country cannot build a comprehensive Culture of Health as long as many continue to face steep and stubborn barriers to well-being.”

Latino community leaders recognize this need, and are pushing for ways to help all children grow up at a healthy weight. I’m heartened by stories like Praxina’s, and the many Latino communities driving healthy changes on their own, and hope we will continue to see more.

What changes are you seeing in Latino communities to make healthy choices easier? Share your story in the comments, or register to be a Salud Leader.

John Govea, JD, MPA, is a senior program officer whose work focuses on identifying advocacy strategies that advance policies and environmental changes leading to increased physical activity and better nutrition for children as well as addressing broader health disparities.