By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

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Guillermina Rice has made it her mission to look after the children at her son’s elementary school. It’s there that she championed a healthy beverage initiative.

For Rice, the interest in nutrition and healthy living is personal. Diabetes runs in the family of the 47-year-old retail employee. Back when her now 13-year-old son Aero attended Central Elementary School in San Diego, she started volunteering to watch over children at recess.

“It’s sad to see how our children who are in school are discriminated by the other little ones because they are a little overweight,” said Rice, who lives in City Heights, a San Diego neighborhood known for its communities of immigrants that include Mexicans, Ethiopians and Vietnamese.

Guillermina Rice with her son Aero.

Guillermina Rice with her son Aero.

Several years ago, Rice worked with the staff at Central to draft a food and beverage policy for birthday celebrations at the school. Parents are now asked to offer fruit, pencils and erasers instead of cakes and sodas. She and other parents also lobbied the school to maintain the water fountains and encourage the children to drink more water.

Rice was motivated to take action after participating in a program by California Project LEAN, a grassroots organization that teaches people how to work with schools and communities to make it easier to exercise and eat healthy. The group trains parents to lobby schools to offer students nutritious meals, water and unsweetened milk.

The California group’s effort is one of several initiatives in Hispanic and Latino communities across the country to encourage people to drink water and ditch sodas and sugar-sweetened beverages.

It was through Project LEAN classes that Rice learned that 4 grams of sugar is equal to 1 teaspoon of sugar. And a 12-ounce can of top-selling soda brands such as Coca-Cola or Pepsi may contain as many as 10 teaspoons of sugar. To drive the point home, Rice and fellow parents were asked to spoon that amount of sugar into a clear plastic bag.

Rice was shocked.

“The simple fact of seeing in a small plastic bag how much sugar a soda has, you start to think, ‘Oh my God, this is too much,” Rice said.

Her son and husband, Marlin, still drink fruit juices and sodas, but she’s cut back.

Since Project LEAN’s beginnings 30 years ago, much of its work has been in Hispanic and Latino communities, said program manager Katherine Hawksworth.

One of the challenges such initiatives face is the pervasive marketing of sugar-sweetened beverages in Hispanic and Latino communities.

According to a 2014 report from the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, Hispanic and Latino children in 2013 saw 32 percent more Spanish-language television ads for sugary beverages than they had in 2010.

In addition to television and magazine ads, beverage manufacturers place posters at neighborhood convenience stores and advertise on scoreboards at high schools. That marketing tends to be in low-income communities that may not be able to afford arts and sports programs, said Jennifer L. Harris, Ph.D., lead author of the Rudd Center report and the center’s director of marketing initiatives.

Harris said, however, that parents in those communities have more sway than they think to force the beverage industry to change their marketing practices. Parents, for example, could pressure the companies to promote their water products at sponsored community events. “They have more [consumer] power than most people,” Harris said.

Hispanics and Latinos, who can be of any race, have among the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the United States. Just over 20 percent of Hispanic and Latino children and teens are obese, a rate higher than their white and black peers, recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show. Hispanic and Latino adults have the second-highest obesity rates behind blacks, with 47 percent of women and 38 percent of men obese, CDC data show.

In Denver, a local community group launched a campaign last year to encourage residents of the Hispanic southwest neighborhood of Westwood to drink water and ditch sugary drinks. Many who live in that low-income community are obese, said Gaby Medina, a health educator with Westwood Unidos.

The message of the joint campaign by Westwood Unidos and Delta Dental of Colorado Foundation has centered on preventing cavities and protecting children’s baby teeth. But Medina, who lives in Westwood, said getting her Hispanic neighbors to drink water wasn’t easy.

Westwood Unidos healthe ducator Gaby Medina talks to children and mothers about drinking water.

Westwood Unidos health educator Gaby Medina talks to children and mothers about drinking water.

In focus groups, many residents said they didn’t trust the city’s tap water because tap water in their native countries is not safe to drink. Some worried the aging pipes in their homes contaminated the water with toxic substances.

Medina recognized herself in some of the parents.

“When I moved to Denver, I didn’t drink tap water,” said the 46-year-old mother of two who moved there from Mexico City about 12 years ago. “Sometimes when I didn’t have bottled water, I took water and boiled it before drinking it.”

Medina also learned parents were concerned their children didn’t have access to water at school. Some complained fountains didn’t work or teachers wouldn’t allow the children to leave the classroom to go to the water fountain. Westwood Unidos gave water dispensers to several classrooms.

Miles away in the Bronx, pediatrician Vanessa Salcedo, M.D., came up with a plan to tackle diabetes, obesity and other health problems in a community that is largely Hispanic and Latino. Most of her patients are Dominican, Puerto Rican and Mexican American, and many are overweight or obese and have chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Salcedo and other doctors at Union Community Health Center’s six clinics in the Bronx talk to patients, young and old, about the sugar content in drinks, and the link between sugar intake and tooth decay, liver disease and Type 2 diabetes. The staff also created displays with empty bottles of sugary beverages popular in the Bronx and placed sugar packets next to them to show the amount in each bottle.

pediatrician Vanessa Salcedo, M.D.

Pediatrician Vanessa Salcedo, M.D.

Salcedo and her staff also walk the walk. Her clinic is a sugary drinks-free zone.

Salcedo stopped drinking soda during her residency and said it is important for the six clinics’ more than 200 employees to set a good example for patients.

“We really wanted to create this sugar-sweetened beverage-free zone as a way to educate our patients and really be role models,” said Salcedo, who is of Dominican and Colombian heritage. “Our patients rely on us.”

Some patients report drinking more water and less soda, juices and sweetened tea, she said. The proof is in the blood work: Children with liver disease have seen their liver enzyme levels improve. Others have lower blood sugar levels and “that really motivates a lot of the families,” Salcedo said.

“It’s really exciting to have this small change make a huge impact,” she said.

Photos courtesy of Guillermina Rice, Westwood Unidos and Union Community Health Center