Focusing on kids' health helps kin
July 26, 2010
BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Sun-Times Columnist
You've heard of "manteca?" It's the rendered pork fat -- a k a lard -- used in traditional Latin American cooking to fry anything and everything from plantain chips to chicken to bananas that have been stuffed with cheese and dipped in batter. Yummy!
Manteca makes food delicious. And Latinos love it. A lot. Too much, in fact. So much it's killing us.
OK, so it's not all the fault of our beloved manteca, but talk to most Latino moms or grandmas about healthier cooking and you'll see them instinctively slit their eyes with an expression that screams "Oh no, don't even think you're going to take my lard from me."
And how do you argue with your abuelita?!
This is what the Latino community is up against as leaders attempt to keep the twin evils of obesity and Type 2 diabetes from decimating the current and next generation.
It's a challenge the Miracle Center, a Northwest Side organization that offers arts programs for neighborhood kids, is tackling head-on through its Healthy Lifestyles Campaign. Funded in part by the Illinois Department of Public Health and the University of Illinois at Chicago's National Center for Excellence in the Elimination of Disparities, the campaign employs skits, cooking demonstrations and dance classes to teach kids what it means to live a healthy lifestyle -- knowledge they can take home to the entire family.
"The families are harder to reach than the kids," Youth Development Director Vanessa Torres told me on a steamy Thursday afternoon, when the day's exercise activities were taking place out in the shade under streams of alternating rain and cooling sprinklers.
"When we reached out to families through focus groups and through community presentations, we got a lot of pushback. They immediately think, 'This is trying to change our traditional Puerto Rican or Mexican food which is made with a lot of love, manteca, and oil.' They say, 'You can't change it, these are our roots,' " Torres said.
But in the face of such resistance, knowledge is a powerful tool, Executive Director Mary Santana says.
"Many parents just didn't know how this eating was affecting their kids' bodies," she said. "They didn't know what healthy food was until their kids helped them understand a few things about basic nutrition, and even about how marketers target Latino consumers with 'biggie' sizes and lower-cost unhealthy snacks."
All the same, it's a tough sell. Just ask Ryan Negron, 16, who has worked on creative projects for the program, helping to design posters, campaign slogans and a pitch on YouTube.
"I just didn't know anything about Type 2 diabetes or what the Body Mass Index was -- I had no clue," said Negron, a sophomore at Lincoln Park High School. "But it hit close to home; I'm tall so I thought I was OK, but I was overweight. I never expected it, but it got me to start getting in shape.
"My parents were pretty supportive. They were glad someone was teaching me about this stuff, especially because there are a lot of people in my family who are overweight," Ryan continued. "But my friends took some time. When I told them why I was getting healthy, some of them said, 'That's not cool -- they're pretty much calling you fat.' But I'd tell them, well, when you think about it, I am. When they want to get healthy, I tell them how and what to do."
It is absolutely beautiful to talk to a young person who is not frightened or overwhelmed by his body, but instead is active, informed and advocating for others to take better care of themselves.
The heartbreaking statistics -- one out of two Hispanic kids is overweight -- demand more full-community initiatives like this one to improve our health.
"It's a challenge, sure," Santana said. "We'll never put the manteca away for good, but maybe some days we can compromise with olive oil."