George Mason University

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Childhood obesity prevention program for Latino communities wins community engagement award

November 15, 2018   /   by Mary Lee Clark

Meals are prepared in the Nutrition Kitchen at the Peterson Family Health Sciences Hall. Photo by: Ron Aira/Creative Services.

Latinos are one of the fastest growing populations in the United States and one of the largest communities in Prince William County, Virginia. Health-based outreach efforts and programs that provide targeted care for Latinos are limited, but a George Mason University program hopes to fix that. ​

Program Coordinator Daisy Posada, MPH ’18, said Latino families often face barriers when shopping and learning about healthy lifestyles.​

"Eating habits are very different based on what they have access to in stores and their income,” said Posada. “One of the parts in our program is sharing recipes that are culturally appropriate but also something they can replicate at home." ​

The program, “Vidas Activas, y Familias Saludables (VALÉ): A Multidisciplinary Childhood Obesity Treatment Program for Latino Communities,” focuses on children's weight management for low-income Latino youth, ages 5 to 9, and their families in Prince William County. ​

Originally funded by Mason’s Multidisciplinary Research Initiative, the programming is in Spanish and pulls evidence-based expertise from three disciplines: exercise physiology, nutrition and psychology. ​

Recently the program was honored with the Potomac Health Foundation’s Best Practice Award for Community Engagement. The recognition highlighted the program’s work with a community advisory board that includes parents who participated in previous years and now help to improve cultural adaptations. ​

The VALÉ program is directed by Sina Gallo, assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food StudiesMargaret Jones, professor in the College of Education and Human Development, and Robyn Mehlenbeck, a clinical associate professor in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and director of Mason’s Center for Psychological Services. The program also relies on local partnerships with schools and free clinics. ​

“Latino children are disproportionately affected by obesity, and our pilot program found early markers of cardiometabolic disease already present in many of the children aged 5 [to] 9 years,” said Gallo. “Early treatment is key to save future health care costs, yet programs for pediatric obesity either do not exist or are inaccessible for many Latinos in this area.” ​

As parents take part in lessons where they learn about reading nutrition labels, understanding different nutrients, reinforcing healthy eating and activity behaviors at home and cooking healthy meals, the children participate in a physical activity and are taught about healthy school lunch choices. At the end of each lesson, parents and children come together to share the meal prepared earlier, as well as set goals for the week together. Behavioral health skills help families make the difficult changes and keep healthy habits going after the program ends.  ​

One cultural adaptation popular with parents is learning to cook meals that are affordable, easy to prepare and culturally appropriate. Posada said they teach families how to cook using pressure cookers, considering that some low-income families may be sharing small kitchens or not have access to full kitchens. 

Last year, the program was awarded the Howard L. Greenhouse Grant from the Potomac Health Foundation, which allowed 44 families to complete the program. This year, the foundation extended the program’s funding to offer it to an additional 48 families. VALÉ is currently recruiting for the next weight management program that will begin in January 2019.