A University of California, Davis, professor and national expert on health issues won a $4.8 million grant Tuesday to combat child obesity in the Central Valley.
Adela de la Torre, director of the university's Center for Transnational Health, will use the five-year award to develop ways to help Mexican-heritage children maintain healthy weights and avoid future health risks, including early diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
Her study, "Niños Sanos, Familia Sana," or "Healthy Children, Healthy Family," will focus on about 800 children and their families in the small, poor Fresno County farming towns of Firebaugh and San Joaquin.
UC Davis was among 24 institutions awarded $80 million in grants by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Agriculture to fight obesity in children ages 2 to 8, university officials said.
Over the next five years, the two towns will become proving grounds in the fight against childhood obesity.
The nation's obesity epidemic has hit children especially hard, especially those from the poorest families.
"Economic factors play a key role," de la Torre said. And for busy, late-working parents, "it's hard to think through what to feed your children. We're finding ways to structure those food decisions."
About 17 percent of children and adolescents are obese, but one in three lowincome children is obese or overweight by the time they turn 5 years old, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For children of Mexican heritage, the percentage is even higher. More than four in 10 children born to parents of Mexican heritage are overweight or obese, de la Torre said.
As part of the study, Firebaugh families will receive $25 vouchers to buy fruits and vegetables at markets in town and learn at regular community family nights about their children's nutritional needs and how to keep them active.
Children in Firebaugh will learn about nutrition in the classroom and will be screened twice yearly to monitor body mass and other markers, UC Davis officials said.
De la Torre said the vouchers will help spur business in a town where the jobless rate exceeds 20 percent and could encourage grocers to stock more healthy produce.
"These are two very poor communities. The infusion of vouchers brings cash into the communities," de la Torre said Tuesday afternoon as she drove to Firebaugh.
Children in San Joaquin will also receive health screenings and education, but not as intensely as those in Firebaugh. A team of UC Davis and University of California Cooperative Extension researchers will review the results at the end of the study to find which approaches worked best.
The UC Davis team will also open an office in Firebaugh, de la Torre said.
"We have to bring our expertise to the community," de la Torre said. "We can no longer stay in our offices and wait for change to occur."