In Muevete USA, student nurses combat childhood obesity

SAN ANTONIO (July 27, 2011) — In two primarily Hispanic neighborhoods, Rosalinda Barrientos and other students from the UT Health Science Center School of Nursing asked children the question, “What does ‘healthy’ mean to you?”

In Los Angeles, nursing students Albert Cervantes and Elizabeth Sobel taught fifth-graders at Celerity Dyad Charter School how to read food labels.

In Phoenix, Crystal Calderon and Paulette Lizarraga showed girls at Mountain View Elementary School that a serving of chicken should be roughly the size of a deck of cards.

In Chicago, Sylvia Castillo coordinated a grocery store visit and a children’s zumba class at the South Chicago Neighborhood House.

In Brownsville, Texas, nursing students helped youngsters to prepare healthy snacks and taught them how to use a jump rope, as most of these children had never even seen a jump rope.

Learning to be tide-changers
These soon-to-be nurses, all members of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses (NAHN), served as trainer-influencers in low-income Hispanic neighborhoods this spring. The goal: to teach healthy attitudes and behaviors to children in Hispanic families. Registered nurses, also members of NAHN, provided guidance.

The program, Muevete (Move) USA, parallels first lady Michele Obama’s Let’s Move campaign and incorporates nurse-mentoring concepts first piloted in the School of Nursing at the Health Science Center. Muevete USA seeks to equip young nurses with the skills and passion to short-circuit the pervasive cycle of childhood and adolescent obesity in the Hispanic community.

“We are teaching an ideal population, Hispanic nursing students, to be pivotal players in teaching our children how to eat a healthy diet and place a high value on physical activity,” said Muevete USA project director Norma Martinez Rogers, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, of the School of Nursing. “If we don’t intervene, our Hispanic children will have problems as adults.”

The ideal plate of food
The program uses curriculum called Healthy Choices for Kids, a program directed in the School of Nursing by Adelita Cantu, Ph.D., RN. The San Antonio students worked with a large population of more than 300 economically disadvantaged children. They instructed the youngsters about MyPlate, a U.S. Department of Agriculture icon of a plate divided into these food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy. After the lesson, the children received a laminated, color copy of the MyPlate icon to take home.

Rosalinda Barrientos, student in the School of Nursing, said: “I find it very rewarding to hear the children say that they will ask their parents to buy more vegetables and make healthier choices. After learning about the MyPlate, one little girl stated, ‘I can’t wait to show my mom so that I can teach her what I learned.’ It is very exciting to see the children become leaders in their own family and know that Muevete USA is helping get the Healthy Choices message across.”

“The children participating in Muevete USA look to the nursing students as leaders and mentors,” said faculty adviser Theresa Villarreal, M.S.N., RN, of the School of Nursing. “In the first week, I observed the children enthusiastically engaging with the students and quickly raising their hands to answer questions.”

Addressing a trend
In Arizona, obesity rates in Hispanic girls, aged 6-14, increased 91 percent between 2003 and 2008. “So that is the age group we decided to work with. We chose only girls,” Lizarraga said. At Mountain View eight NAHN member nursing students worked with 35 girls, not all in elementary but ranging from the first to eighth grades. All 35 were obese and 10 had type 2 diabetes, said Bertha Sepulveda, RN, of the Phoenix chapter of NAHN.

Surveys conducted before and after the four sessions showed improved knowledge among the girls about behavioral and cultural risk factors for obesity and diabetes.

At Celerity Dyad in Los Angeles, nursing students emphasized sodium, cholesterol and fat content of foods, portion, and the importance of eating fruits and vegetables. “One of the kids said they never tried spinach before,” Sobel said. “Then he said this is really good.”

Expanding a boundary
Food deserts are areas where healthy, affordable foods are difficult to acquire, perhaps because of a lack of transportation. In these areas it is usually easier to shop at convenience stores where healthy choices are limited. On the Southeast Side of Chicago, where Castillo and another nursing student worked, a large grocery store is less than 2 miles away yet many children had never been taken there.

“We were able to rent a trolley and take the kids to the supermarket,” said NAHN member Loraine Moreno, RN. “They had not been introduced to the array of fruits and vegetables you find there. The store managers were totally supportive, telling how they order produce. I couldn’t believe many of the children had never been outside the community area.”

Chicago is a city of many small communities. If parents don’t place high importance on proper nutrition and health, going outside the tight-knit culture of their community takes a back seat, Moreno said.

Recipes and jump rope
NAHN member Eloisa Tamez, Ph.D., of the School of Nursing at The University of Texas at Brownsville, mentored a nursing student who addressed nutrition while another addressed physical activity. Brownsville is in Texas’ Lower Rio Grande Valley, an area that includes several of the top 10 poorest counties in the United States. Students focused their activity at a church at El Ranchito, a colonia or unincorporated community near the Rio Grande.

Simple physical activity, such as jumping rope, was a new concept to some of the children. Some foods were, too. “The children didn’t know about fruit, and yet the Valley is rich in produce,” Dr. Tamez said. The student trainers had the children keep journals and write index cards with low-fat, high-fiber recipes.

Program support
Muevete USA funding is from $500,000 awarded to NAHN by the U.S. Congress and a $150,000 grant to NAHN from The Coca-Cola Foundation.

“We are proud to partner with NAHN on this important healthy lifestyle training program,” said Frank Ros, vice president, Hispanic strategies, for Coca-Cola North America. “This program is pivotal to helping create healthy, sustainable communities.”

From Phoenix to Chicago to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, more Hispanic children are now thinking about making healthy choices, thanks to Muevete USA and the commitment and passion of student nurses.

The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, one of the country’s leading health sciences universities, ranks in the top 3 percent of all institutions worldwide receiving federal funding. Research and other sponsored program activity totaled $228 million in fiscal year 2010. The university’s schools of medicine, nursing, dentistry, health professions and graduate biomedical sciences have produced approximately 26,000 graduates. The $744 million operating budget supports eight campuses in San Antonio, Laredo, Harlingen and Edinburg. For more information on the many ways “We make lives better®,” visit

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