Will you tune in to HBO’s obesity films, ‘Weight of the Nation?’

On Monday (May 14) HBO will premiere the first two parts of its documentary series, ‘The Weight of the Nation.’

The films – presented by HBO and the Institute of Medicine, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, in partnership with the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and Kaiser Permanente – feature case studies, interviews with health experts, and the stories of individuals and families struggling with obesity, according to the film’s website.

Here’s a trailer for the films:

Will you be tuning in? And do you think this film can make an impact in the San Joaquín Valley, where 70.9 pecent of Latino adults are overweight or obese?

If you don’t have HBO – or if you are interested in watching the films again with other Valley residents – consider attending a partial screening at the John W. Wells Youth Center in Madera on May 30 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. The event, hosted by Central Valley Health Network’s HEAL Zone and Kaiser Permanente, will also include a panel discussion intended to inspire ideas about how to make Madera a healthier place to live.  

Pictured above: There are already some great obesity-prevention efforts in the San Joaquín Valley, including the Community Food Bank’s food demonstrations, and a walking path at the Selma flea market.

Disparities in stalling obesity rates?

The New York Times and Los Angeles Times both ran stories this week about the apparent stalling of the country’s obesity rate.

Here’s an excerpt from the New York Times’ Well blog:

After two decades of steady increases, obesity rates in adults and children in the United States have remained largely unchanged during the past 12 years, a finding that suggests national efforts at promoting healthful eating and exercise are having little effect on the overweight.

While it is good news that the ranks of the obese in America are not growing, the data also point to the intractable nature of weight gain and signal that the country will be dealing with the health consequences of obesity for years to come.

But, the stories caution, there are still disparities in obesity rates. Here’s an excerpt from the Los Angeles Times story:

But though obesity rates may be flattening overall, increases and disparities can still be found in specific racial and ethnic groups.

Rates have risen to 58.5% among non-Hispanic black women and to nearly 45% among Mexican American women since 2004, for example. And among children and teens, about 21% of Hispanics and 24% of blacks are obese compared with 14% of non-Hispanic whites.

It is encouraging to hear that the overall obesity rate has not continued to skyrocket. But from recent interviews with school nurses throughout the San Joaquín Valley, I’ve heard that obesity and diabetes remain huge health issues among students.

“We are seeing a lot more overweight kids,” said Sandy Dutch, a school nurse with the Tulare County Office of Education. “Kids are concerned about being overweight.”

Being overweight or obese is not only a health problem – it can take a toll on students’ education, said Aurora Licudine, chairperson of school nurses for Modesto City Schools.

“Students who are overweight have more absences, and students who are overweight are not as academically successful,” she said.

“Our goal is to make them independent, and have them make these lifeystle changes, and that takes time.”

Live in a food swamp?

One morning, when I was reporting from Kettleman City, I took the video below.

Actually, the video was an accident, but the short clip and audio thoroughly depict the lack of healthy food options near the unincorporated Kings County community.

A recent health policy brief published by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research analyzed the retail food environments in counties across the state, and found that many of them might look like this stretch of Highway 41.

According to the report, about 75 percent of California teens live and go to school in less health food environments, where fast food restaurants, convenience stores, liquor stores, dollars stores and pharmacies outnumber grocery stores, warehouse stores and produce vendors.

In fact, the food environments in the Valley are some of the worst in the state.

For example, in Stanislaus County, there are more than 9 times as many fast food restaurants, convenience stores, liquor stores, and dollars stores, as there are grocery stores and produce vendors. In Tulare County, there are 8.6 times more unhealthy food retail options than healthy options; in Fresno, there are 8 times more unhealthy retail options than healthy ones.


This oversaturation of unhealthy food options has created a predictable situation: According to the report, soda consumption is highest among teens with the least healthy food environments near their homes and schools. Teens who live amidst the most unhealthy food options also have the highest fast food consumption.

And consumption of soda and sugar-sweetened beverages, and fast food, is linked to greater caloric intake. Eating and drinking these sugary sodas and fast food may have contributed to the rise in obesity rates, according to the report.

What sorts of solutions are available for communities like Kettleman City, pictured at the top of this page, or Pixley, in Tulare County, picture in the center?

The report recommends increasing the presence of farmer’s markets, food cooperatives, and community gardens; encouraging the development of farm-to-institution programs; developing and providing incentives to attract grocery stores and improve foods available in existing stores; and consider zoning and land use policies that improve food environments near schools and in underserved communities.

These changes are necessary to ensure our communities don’t remain “food swamps,” where there is so much food around, but nothing healthy or nourishing to eat.

Obesity, previously on Harvesting Health:

Preview: Teatro Obesity

UPDATE: ‘Theatrical play pulls obesity battle onto stage‘ ran in the July6, 2011 edition of Vida.

For decades, Agustin Lira has created theatrical performances that promote social messages. Through his plays, Lira – the co-founder of El Teatro Campesino, who also formed El Teatro de la Tierra in 1969, and co-founded Teatro Inmigrante in 2001 – has highlighted farmworker and immigration issues.

This year, he is honing in on another social issue that is impacting the Latino community. Through a partnership with the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program (CCROPP,) Lira and Teatro Inmigrante co-founder Patricia Wells Solórzano will develop a play about obesity. (In the San Joaquín Valley, 71 percent of Latino adults are overweight or obese.)

In a phone interview, Lira said he is confident that teatro can be used to educate the community about obesity.

“It has worked in the past to get the message out about different issues,” he said. The production, he said, can “educate people about what things are happening and what they can do about it.”

Are you interested in participating in this bilingual project? Within the next two weeks, Lira will hold a preliminary meeting for people who are interested in performing in the production. The group is looking for people with acting experience, and those without experience who really want to learn.

Volunteer actors and actresses will be involved for a period of two months of rehearsal (two meeting per week) with 5 or 6 theatrical performances at the end of the project. For more information about Teatro Obesity, contact (559) 485-8558.

Above: Lira and Wells Sólorzano perform in ‘A Yellow Rose from Texas: Emma Tenayuca’ in 2007. Photo by Juan Esparza Loera.

Soda tax fizzles, unhealthy food environments persist

The proposed soda tax fizzled out before my story could even run in Vida en el Valle.

On Monday, the Assembly Revenue and Taxation Committee effectively killed  AB 669, would have levied a one-penny tax per fluid ounce on soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages. The bill was moved to the Assembly suspense file, according to news reports.

The bill was intended to fight rising obesity levels.

To report on the now-defunct tax, I visited last Friday the Orosi Market, a convenience store bordered on two sides by orange groves, in East Orosi (pop. 386.) While the tax may be dead, the health problems I saw in the market will, unfortunately, continue long past this Assembly session.

Inside the market, beer advertisements (Este es Cerveza!) wallpapered the store. There are 12 refrigerated cases in the store. Six cases were stocked with beer, and six were filled with soda and sugary drinks.

“Well of course, everybody demands sodas,” storeowner Steve Samin said.

Just one row in one case offered bottles of water. The row wasn’t even full. That probably doesn’t hurt the store’s bottom line.

The amount of water sold at the store, Samin said, is “far off, far off,” from the amount of soda. In three days, he might sell one case (24 bottles) of water, compared with five or six cases of soda.

I spent about an hour inside the market. I watched as community residents stopped in for a snack, and workers stopped in for cold refreshments.

Not one person purchased water or a diet sold during that hour. But a few people did tell me they would support a tax that would curb the amount of soda consumed by children.

“I don’t like soda, and I don’t give soda to my kids… because soda is not good for them,” said Manuela Márquez of Dinuba, as she purchased a tall can of Chelada. “It’s better for them to drink juice or water.”

“I have a daughter, and she has become heavy from drinking so much soda,” said José Velasco of Orange Cove, as he purchased a tall can of Arizona Iced Tea. He prefers she drink “less soda” and more “water, juice, or milk.”

Spending time at the market underscored something Genoveva Islas-Hooker, of the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program, said during a media briefing regarding the soda tax.

“We are creating sugar-sweetened beverages as the definitive choice for low-income community members,” she said. “The beverage environment is definitely shaping the obesity epidemic.”

Living with Diabetes

In recognition of American Diabetes Month, I’m working on a story about diabetes among Latinos in the San Joaquín Valley.

The story, which will run in the Nov. 24 edition of Vida en el Valle, will focus on the individual experiences of a few Latinos in the San Joaquín Valley who are living with diabetes. (UPDATE: Read the full story here.)

In the San Joaquín Valley, 11.3 percent of Latinos have been diagnosed with diabetes. Across California, more than 2 million adults have been diagnosed with diabetes, according to the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research report, “Obesity and Diabetes: Two Growing Epidemics in California.”

For now, I’d like to introduce you to a few of the people who are featured in the story.

Jesús Sánchez
: 29
Time with diabetes: 3 months
Birth place/Current home: Oaxaca, México/Madera, CA
Advice for people recently diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes: “Don’t lose heart. Do your best: pay attention to your doctor, eat healthier food, and follow the diet.”

Esperanza Aguillón
: 60
Time with diabetes: 14 years
Birth place/Current home: Mexicali, México/Porterville, CA
Advice: “You have to accept that you have this disease and you have to take care of yourself. If it’s not for you, it should be for your loved ones.
“You have to make the sacrifice. At first it is difficult, it is very difficult to become accustomed to another way of eating, but it’s worth it to take care of yourself and feel better.”

Azucena Durán
Age: 25
Time with gestational diabetes: 1.5 months
Birth place/current home: Jalisco, México/Stockton, CA
Advice for women with gestational diabetes: “It’s really all going to be worth it in the end – the dieting, the insulin. As much as it’s stressful and tedious, it really will all be worth it in the end.
“Yeah, I really want that piece of cheesecake, but then it’s not good for your baby, and ultimately your goal is to have a healthy baby. It’s all worth it in the end.”

Age: 13
Time with type 1 diabetes: 4 years
Current home: Selma, CA
Advice for kids diagnosed with type 1 diabetes: “At first it starts off bad – you don’t know what is happening. But once you start learning about it, you start to understand that it’s not your fault, it just happens. And things are going to change, but you will start getting used to it, and pretty much your life is going to go back to how it was, and diabetes is going to be another part of you, like your personality. You’re going to be a normal person like you were before, just having to do things a little differently.”

For more information about Latinos and diabetes, check out these sites:

Something to chew on: The need for kids’ oral health care in the Valley

UPDATE: Read the full story – A dental crisishere.


When Clinica Sierra Vista CEO Stephen Schilling told me about the dramatic need for children’s oral health care in California, I was surprised, to say the least.

What about asthma or obesity?

“Epidemiologically, you will find that untreated oral health concerns are our greatest public health children’s challenge in California,” Schilling said.

That idea spurred me to investigate the need for dental care for San Joaquín Valley children, especially Latino kids.

Here are some of the statistics I’ve learned, courtesy of the organization Children Now:

  • The problem: The Surgeon General’s Report on Oral Health cited tooth decay as the most common chronic childhood disease in the nation
  • Who it affects: Low-income kids are at a higher risk of suffering from dental disease.
  • The short-term impact: More than 500,000 kids in California missed one or more school days as a result of oral health problems
  • The long-term impact: Poor oral health is linked to other health problems, like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and, for women, premature births.

You can read more about this serious – and under-recognized – health issue in next week’s edition of Vida en el Valle.

For now, I encourage you to check out the videos included in the post. The videos depict the oral health curriculum at the Orange Cove Migrant Head Start.

Planting the seeds of health

“Who will be the driving force for a garden at your school?”

That is one question filmmaker Robert Lee Grant poses toward the end of his thought-provoking 31-minute film, ‘Nourishing the Kids of Katrina – The Edible Schoolyard.’

The award-winning film documents how a community garden helped revitalize a New Orleans school after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. In the 1/3-acre organic garden – (there is a similar one in Berkeley, and both are spearheaded by  Alice Waters) – low-income children stick their hands in the dirt and nurture and harvest crops. They learn to cook the fruits and vegetables they’ve grown, and connect their garden experiences to their academic courses.

It’s not hard to imagine edible schoolyards sprouting up across the San Joaquín Valley. In fact, many people said during a community discussion following the screening, we need community gardens to be incorporated into school curriculums.

For starters, the Valley has a rich tradition of agriculture, and the gardens could honor that. The Valley is home to so many diverse cultures and languages, and this could be reflected in the crops grown in school gardens, and the tools used in them, Grant said in a recent interview.

But beyond that, Valley families need the health education the gardens could provide.

As Edie Jessup of the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program reminded the audience before the film was screened last Thursday night, Valley residents suffer from serious poverty, hunger, obesity, and chronic health issues. So many people live in rural areas and work in agriculture, but don’t have access to region’s bountiful produce, she said.

In the school gardens, young Valley children would grow fruits and vegetables. They would get exercise from working in the garden, gain a connection to the land, and cultive relationships with their classmates. Valley kids would harvest their fruits and vegetables, and then learn to enjoy eating and cooking with them.

  • Just those simple steps could help create healthy habits for the kids, who would pass them on to their families. Over a lifetime, those healthy habits could help curb the alarming rate of childhood obesity in the Valley.

As Waters is known to say: “if they grow it, they’ll eat it.” Or as another public health expert said, “healthy choices should be easy, and unhealthy choices should be hard.”

So, who will be the driving force for an edible schoolyard in our community? Some communities – like Pixley, in Tulare County – have already planted the seeds of garden projects. But how do we turn these community gardens into a movement?

People could start by reaching out to their local schools and school boards. Grant says it’s easier to implement an edible schoolyard curriculum at charter schools, like Samuel J. Green in New Orleans – but they can be added to public schools, too.

For proof, Valley residents just need to look to Stockton, where Grant is in discussions about creating a community garden at Wilhelmina Henry Elementary School. Grant said a congressman and the local farm bureau are already behind the effort.

During an interview, Grant compared the healthy foods movement to the civil rights movement, in terms of how quickly its gaining momentum. Will you join the nutritious food scene, and ensure that all kids in their families have access to healthy foods, which will lead to healthier lives?

Photo taken by Daniel Cásarez in Pixley.

It’s working out for these women!

A group of Latina mothers from the John Burroughs Elementary School community has taken two crucial health issues into their own hands.

In a community that has no safe place to play besides the school facilities, the women recently signed a joint-use agreement with Fresno Unified School District, which allows the elementary school’s gates – and its parks and playground - to be open throughout the summer.

And in a region where 64 percent of Latino adults are overweight or obese, the women have dedicated themselves to a boot-camp exercise group. This summer, they have been meeting in the school park six days a week to take walks and work out.

I caught up with the group around 10:30 a.m. last Saturday morning. They were just completing their morning boot-camp session, and were stretching out their well-worked limbs under the shade of some trees. Their young children played nearby.

Afterward, many of the women told me they have already seen great results from the work-out regimen.

“Now I’m skinnier,” Esther Carmona, a mother of four, said proudly in Spanish. She grinned, and smoothed her hands down her flattened stomach and hips.

“I have more energy to come and do exercises, and I’m enjoying it,” Carmona said. Working out with the group of women, she said, “relieves your stress, makes you relax, and makes you forget about the problems you have in your house.”

Guillermina Chavanil, another mother of four, said she feels healthier, and lighter, now that she is exercising regularly.

“I started working out to feel better, and I do feel better,” Chaval said.

It was inspiring to hear the group of women talk about their dedication to their exercise regimen. And in a time when childhood obesity has become an important issue, it was neat to hear that the women’s children are as dedicated to the weekly routine as their mothers.


Are you interested in joining a boot-camp? The John Burroughs mothers work out with Jennifer Alcorn’s TeamJab fitness boot camp. TeamJab offers other boot camps around the Fresno area.