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Winning the battle against childhood obesity

RITA PRATS-RODRIGUEZ | 4/12/2011, 5:26 p.m.

Food is central to many cultures, including mine. I grew up in Puerto Rico in a family that made home-cooked food part of every celebration. I brought those traditions with me when I moved to New York City, committed to eating wholesome, natural foods even when faced with many unhealthy options.

Today, I run the East Harlem Bilingual Head Start program, and it was only natural for me to share my love of food with the children and families I serve.

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named obesity and nutrition as one of its "winnable battles" for public health in this country. I couldn't agree more. It is well known that children in poor neighborhoods are more likely to be obese and being obese as a child can also affect school performance and lead to a host of health problems later in life. The convenience of cheap, highly processed foods leads many parents to believe that eating healthy meals is complicated or expensive, but in my Head Start program, I am showing families in East Harlem that this just isn't true.

As a long-time educator, when I set out to bring nutrition into my Head Start program, I started by educating myself and my staff. I took part in a management program for community leaders and learned to create a business plan for my program. We looked closely at our budget and the food we were serving and figured out that by cutting out sugary juice drinks, we could afford to buy more whole grains. We consulted with doctors and dietitians and planned a new menu with basic, wholesome meals that are cheaper to make from scratch than from a package. Most importantly, we learned to speak with one voice: "Here, we cook! Our food reflects the ethnicity of our families, and it does not cost more."

Then, together, we began educating families. Since food plays an important role in many cultures, we built nutrition right into the curriculum, inviting parents to come into classroom and show the children how to prepare healthy ethnic meals. We have a nutritionist meet with parents and provide basic, accessible nutrition lessons. We even developed guidelines for healthy family celebrations to help parents shift the emphasis on holidays from an excess of food to focus on games and activity.

My goal from the beginning has been to change the way the children in my neighborhood eat, by teaching families skills they can use at home. To beat childhood obesity, we must always be ready to try new things--whether that is a new food or a new way of thinking about the way we eat. It starts with ourselves and the example we set for children.

Rita Prats-Rodriguez is the director of East Harlem Bilingual Head Start and a fellow of the UCLA/Johnson & Johnson Head Start Management Fellows program.