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For immigrant Mexican mothers, obesity is a new threat to their children’s health

Seven-year-old Mileidy Merino waits for her mother, Araceli, to  finish dinner.

Seven-year-old Mileidy Merino waits for her mother, Araceli, to finish dinner. Photo by Irasema Romero

The small rural town of Tecamtalan is covered with natural colors. They are the colors of acres of harvested land, where food like tomatoes, watermelons, peanuts, beans and corn dot the central Mexican state of Puebla. These are the lands where only three years ago Sindy Cecilio, then 10 years old, climbed up and down wooden ladders picking plums from their trees. Agriculture was a family business. The Cecilio family sold fresh produce in a market 15 minutes north of their home. The fresh air and open spaces are a contrast to the life she now leads as a seventh grader at M.S. 328 in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx. Gone are the afternoons playing and running in open fields or the Saturday mornings helping her father in the harvest. Now instead of selling food in the market, she accompanies her mother Araceli Merino to buy fruits and vegetables twice a week from the small Green Cart that parks on West 231st Street and Kingsbridge Avenue. Keeping her three children healthy is important to Merino, a stay-at-home mother, because she knows it is easier for them to gain weight now that their new lifestyle requires less physical work than what children are used to doing in Mexico. That's true for her as well. In Mexico, she had to wash clothes by hand, one piece at a time. Today she just goes to the laundromat down the street. For evidence of how their new lifestyle has influenced her children’s health, Merino has only to look at her. Last September, Mileidy’s doctor told Merino that the little girl needed to lose 12 pounds. “In Mexico children eat but at least they go out and walk, run and play outside,” said Merino in the hallway of the family’s two-bedroom apartment. Unlike her sister, Mileidy did not experience the active lifestyle helping in the field.  Merino said that other than weekends when the weather is warm and they go to Van Cortlandt Park, the children spend their free time at home. And because P.S. 207 is only a few buildings south from their Godwin Terrace ground-floor apartment, Mileidy’s physical activity is limited to a school dance class once a week. Forty-six percent of Hispanic children across the New York City public school system are overweight or obese, according to a recent study released by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Mileidy has become part of this statistic after living in the Bronx for three years. This weight gain may be influenced by her family’s adjustment to a new lifestyle because in Puebla, physical activity and healthy eating were rooted in their livelihood.
Mileidy's family moved to the Bronx three years ago from Puebla, Mexico. Photo by Irasema Romero.

Mileidy's family moved to the Bronx three years ago from Puebla, Mexico. Photo by Irasema Romero

The U.S. Census estimates there are 282,965 Mexicans living in New York City, with nearly half originating from Puebla, a state known for its agricultural richness. While the weight gain for recent immigrants may seem relatively small, public health experts worry that it’s an indicator of bigger problems to come. As children become accustomed to the American culture, their body mass index levels increase. The National Council of La Raza released in November their latest installment of a 12-part series titled Profiles of Latino Health: A Closer Look at Latino Childhood Nutrition, which indicates that “first-generation immigrant children were significantly less likely (24.6%) than second-generation children (U.S.-born children of immigrant parents) (32.1%) and third-generation children (U.S.-born children of U.S.-born parents) (31.7%) to be overweight or obese.” In the Cecilio family, those statistics translate into the fact that one of the four children is experiencing weight issues. Merino attributes her daughter’s weight gain to her diet both at home and at school, which serves pizza for lunch every Friday. Since September, she has tried to make the meals at home healthier. She stopped making spaghetti, which they ate at least once or twice a week. She returned to caldo de pollo (chicken soup), cemitas (a sandwich specialty from Puebla) and the traditional mole poblano. “They used to eat a lot before,” said adding that she has now restricted Mileidy from eating her favorite evening snack: Mexican white cheese with sour cream.  After 6 p.m., the family is now only eating healthy snacks like oranges and Mileidy’s favorite fruit, the mango. Before that, they were having a full meal right after school and again at around 8 p.m. The second grader has since lost three pounds and her mother keeps working for more.  Merino said she will continue buying fresh fruit from the Green Cart and going to a live poultry shop called a vivero on 231st Street and Broadway. She said she does not buy prepackaged poultry or meat from the supermarket because she is used to growing chicken in her home in Puebla. “I think it’s because they spend more time in the supermarket, and in the viveros you can buy them the way you like them,” said of her interest in keeping her Mexican customs and not buying frozen food. According to Andrew Rundle, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, her desire to buy fresh fruit from farmer’s markets and poultry from viveros is consistent with what his team found in recent studies of health-conscious New York immigrants. In his interviews with 350 Hispanic immigrant women about what makes food healthy, the majority suggested they want to know where the food comes from and they like to be able to choose the meat or poultry they want. These women did not use terms like gluten-free or organic, which in local supermarkets can mean a higher cost in food, to describe their nutritional choices. The idea of healthy food originated in the lifestyle of their native Latin American countries, but also echo the slow food movement that started in Italy, Rundle said. The slow food movement was established in 1986 as an alternative to fast food, suggesting a need for fresh and organic food that is not altered for faster growth. “This is an idea that is seen as very elitist, yet these women who are immigrants and live in poor areas have these ideas and attitudes that are very familiar to slow foods,” said Rundle, adding that the women in the study perceived the dirt on the vegetables they buy at farmers’ markets as an indicator of freshness. This principle of freshness is valued among other Poblano immigrants in the Bronx who are used to eating organic produce their family harvested. At the age of 22, Ines Juarez moved to the Bronx from a small town in the mountains of the Mexican state of Puebla, where her family planted corn, oranges, and bananas in the fields adjacent to their home. “[In Mexico] things are more natural,” Juarez said speaking of the fruits and vegetables she now tries to buy for her family. “Here they regularly have to have chemicals to help them grow faster for production.” Her two boys, who are also students at P.S. 207, did not get to experience that rustic lifestyle in her native Mexico, where she woke up to the sound of roosters and chickens. In contrast, Jonathan, 9, and six-year-old Bryant’s childhood experiences are limited to the busy city streets surrounding their Bailey Street apartment, where the #1 train rushes through in the background and honking cars crowd the nearby Major Deegan Expressway. Juarez tries to continue the customs she learned in Puebla, where the women in the family would spend time making food from scratch, including rolling and pounding on dough to make corn and flour tortillas. Food was not purchased in cans or packaged to last for weeks. If they wanted something sweet to drink, they would pick oranges from the ground near the fruit trees around their home and have freshly squeezed orange juice. They rarely watched television because they were busy harvesting the field and tending to the chickens and turkeys the family grew. When the children were not going to school or helping the family, they had lots of room to run and play, Juarez added. Because other family members lived nearby, it was easier for children to go out with relatives without worrying about where they were. Although she still makes tortillas from scratch and stays away from canned food because her family doesn’t like the taste, Juarez believes Jonathan is about five to 10 pounds over his healthy weight. But as a first-generation Mexican immigrant, the factors influencing Jonathan’s weight may be defined by his mother’s struggle to maintain hints of a Poblano lifestyle while not limiting her children’s American experience. “Their friends bring snacks to school and they want some,” said Juarez. Often, Jonathan and Bryant are asking for cookies and chips. “I tell them ‘no’ because it’s not as healthy and they don’t need it…But it’s difficult to limit so many things.”
Arminda Muñoz took her three children to Fitness Fun Day at M.S. 45 to help her 11-year-old son Jeffrey stay active. Photo by Irasema Romero

Arminda Muñoz took her three children to Fitness Fun Day at M.S. 45 to help her 11-year-old son Jeffrey stay active. Photo by Irasema Romero

Juarez’ children are easily tempted by snacks from the bodegas surrounding their school. According to “Disparities in the Food Environments of New York City Public Schools,” another study completed by Dr. Rundle and his team, there are on average 10 bodegas within a 400-meter radius of New York City public schools. Even though Juarez, who is a stay-at-home mother, tries to maintain a healthy diet, other Mexican immigrants may not be as aware of the low nutritional value of processed food. In the 2009 study “Moving to the Land of Milk and Cookies: Obesity among the children of immigrants,” Dr. Jennifer Van Hook, a professor of sociology and demography at Penn State, and her team followed approximately 20,000 children from kindergarten through 8th grade and found that 40 percent of first-generation Hispanic children are overweight or obese by the time they get to eighth grade. About two-thirds of Hispanic children in the study were of Mexican descent. She said that immigrant parents may not understand the significance of childhood obesity because it may not have been a major problem in their native countries. Even in the U.S., it has only become an issue in the last 10 to 20 years. Van Hook said that children in the study whose parents come from the poorest countries had the highest obesity rates. “The idea of dieting, the idea of exercising… is probably foreign to a lot of these people coming from pretty rural areas of Mexico and agricultural backgrounds, especially if parents grew up in situations where they did not have enough,” Van Hook said. Although Puebla has a prominent agricultural economy, it is still one of the poorest states in Mexico. CONEVAL, Mexico’s council for the evaluation of economic development reported in August 2010 that over 61 percent of youth in Puebla live in conditions of poverty. In all, over half of Puebla’s five million residents live in poverty. Children in Mexico who live in rural areas are thinner than those who live in urban areas of Mexico, said Van Hook, which suggests that a higher income does not translate to a healthier lifestyle. “There’s more opportunities to go out to dinner and to eat more, and to eat more sort of non-traditional preprocessed foods when you live in an urban area,” she said adding that immigrant families who have gained a level of financial stability in the United States are also still at risk of gaining weight. Although family economics may be better than when they arrived to the Bronx almost 10 years ago, Juarez rarely eats out, and instead takes her children to Van Cortlandt Park on the weekends She said she tries to keep the children as physically active as possible even if it’s inside the house. Sixty minutes of daily physical activity are recommended for children, but, according to the New York City Department of Education, only 40 percent of the city’s six- to 12-year-olds achieves it. The department’s 2009 Child Health Survey suggests that one in every 10 children did not get even one hour of physical activity outside of school the week before the survey was administered.
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Jeffrey Muñoz plays games at Fitness Fun Day in October. Photo by Irasema Romero

With the goal of providing fun alternatives to exercise, Manhattan-based USA Fitness Corps partnered with Thomas C. Giordano Middle School in the Bronx to offer Fun Fitness Day this past October. Jaci Van Heest, a professor of kinesiology and child psychology at the University of Connecticut, designed the workout for the event using traditional activities and modifying them with fun new elements. For example, the simple act of kicking a soccer ball incorporates body movements to increase physical activity as children participate in a circle. “If you use the word exercise, it conjures up images and feelings that are typically negative – work, sweat, sore, not fun,” Van Heest said. “If adults think that, why would children think or say anything different?” Seventh grader and Puebla native Jeffrey Munoz enjoyed playing Van Heest’s modified soccer version as he gathered with other children in the southeast corner of the M.S. 45 Doc Serpone playground on East 189th Street and Lorillard Place. The session was led by a group of retired veterans of the U.S. armed forces. Jeffrey watched the ball closely to kick it during his turn. When it went out of bounds, he took a breather, bending down and restings his left elbow on his knee. The 11-year-old said that sometimes he does not get a chance to play soccer, his favorite sport, with his friends because they don’t want to go out a play. “My dad told me that I needed to lose weight because I’m getting a little fat,” Jeffrey added.  “It makes me feel like he wants me to exercise.” Jeffrey, who moved to the U.S. with his family five years ago, is now 10 pounds over his healthy weight, said his mother Arminda Muñoz.  “He likes to exercise but he also eats a lot,” Munoz said of her son, who also watches at least two hours of television each day. “I want him to get healthy because he’s at risk of having diabetes and other health problems.” A doctor advised Jeffrey to lose weight earlier in the semester and Muñoz now wants her two younger children to learn the value of being healthy and staying active.  That’s why she brought her children to the fitness session at Jeffrey’s Mott Haven middle school. Principal Annamaria Giordano said the school decided to become the first to offer Fitness Fun Day in the Bronx as a way to provide school families resources to fight childhood obesity. “The small steps are perfect because they lead to the big steps,” she said of that Saturday’s two-hour activity series. “We are trying to ensure that our children are healthy and fit. Our small part can help a child or two or more. Van Heest said Fun Fitness Days strives to change the perception of exercise for the over 100 schoolchildren who participated. The next time they have the opportunity to be active, she hopes they will bring back the memory of “the last time I had fun.” Similarly, parents like Merino, Juarez, and Muñoz rely on memories of the Puebla they left behind to continue influencing their children’s diet and exercise habits. Their children may grow up as Americans but they each strive to preserve the best of what their families experienced in Mexico – if only for the sake of their children’s health.

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