Berry News

Oxnard grower enrolls workers in program to reverse obesity, diabetes among Latinos

Source: VCSTAR.COM | March 25, 2010

In a pearl snap button shirt, cowboy boots, and tan Wrangler cords topped by a big brass belt buckle, Juan Becerra looks every bit the farmhand.

That’s what makes the yoga he’s doing seem so odd.

Under his thick black mustache, a sheepish smile creeps across his tanned face as he teeters a little bit on one foot while raising the other and trying to place it on the inside of his thigh.

Standing next to his wife, Fidela Hernandez, in a room full of farmworkers, Becerra said later he’s trying to change his future.

“For my children,” he said in Spanish. “I want my children to grow up healthy.”

During the session that is a little akin to a support group, each of the farmworkers makes a promise for the week.

“I promise to eat less sugar,” said Becerra, who is a work foreman with the large berry-growing company Reiter Affiliated, which is also hosting the group.

Hernandez, who picks raspberries, strawberries and blueberries for the company, promises to do “a little of everything,” meaning she’s going to cut back on sugar, exercise more, eat more vegetables and drink more water. The couple, both in their late 30s, have four daughters and a son, ranging in age from a few months to 15.

They are part of an experiment of sorts, a gambit to reverse a troubling trend of soaring rates of obesity and diabetes among Latinos.

Nearly 70 percent of Latinos are overweight compared to half of whites. Obesity is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes, and Latinos are more likely than whites to suffer from the disease. Officials from Reiter Affiliated decided that for the sake of its employees, they’d sponsor a 10-week program not just in Oxnard but also in Watsonville and in Mexico where it has fields.

Called Sembrando Salud or the Healthy Lifestyle Initiative, the classes will be followed with smaller support groups. The company is starting with 150 employees in Oxnard, another 150 in Watsonville and 300 in Mexico. It partnered with UC Berkeley and UC Davis to both develop the courses and also evaluate whether they work.

The idea is to instill new habits in eating, exercise and other lifestyle choices. It’s hoped the program ultimately will be taken up in the Latino community at large, said Garland Reiter, the president and CEO of Reiter Affiliated.

“We hope this initiative can help improve the health and education of the community far beyond our employee population,” Reiter said in a prepared statement.

Looking out at the class of about 10 farmworkers, Maricela Gutierrez, who once picked berries herself, is explaining the pancreas, the production of insulin and how food is processed.

Instead of going through a long-winded medical explanation, she posts little cartoon-like pictures: a blender to represent the stomach, a factory for the pancreas, and a little demon for sugar. She quickly and clearly boils down what a diet high in fat and sugar can do to you. Her Spanish is direct and familiar to the workers.

“That’s what we were looking for,” said Veronica Vargas, the coordinator for the program in Oxnard.

Some of the classes have focused simply on what to look for on a label.

Isabel and Enrique Magdaleno have embraced some of the simplest changes.

“I make more salads,” she said, adding that she and her husband take more walks with their kids after work.

The couple has three children and she worries about their health.

Although UC Davis and UC Berkeley researchers will evaluate the participants, it’s people like Gutierrez who have the role of making it connect with farmworkers.

Instead of suggesting working out at the gym and a new diet, the emphasis is on the kinds of changes these workers can make, said Yissel Barajas, Reiter Affiliated’s director of philanthropy.

“The classes are to help them make healthy choices and promote exercise and diet in culturally sensitive ways,” said Barajas.

The classes recognize the type of food that is available to the workers and their long hours. So some of the changes may be as simple as using a whole wheat tortilla instead of a white flour one, picking whole beans instead of refried beans in a burrito, and drinking aguas frescas with real fruit juices instead of a soda, Barajas said.

“We also have to be sensitive to what it means to be a farmworker,” she said. “It’s not realistic to expect that after the day they’ll go and work out at the gym.”

Instead, the courses try to have workers incorporate walking or dancing into their lives as a way to regularly get their heart rates up.

The broader question is why obesity is hitting Latinos harder than the population as a whole. Americans in general are fatter today than they’ve ever been. And like people in general, Latinos are consuming more junk food and are less active then they’ve been in the past.

But the problem may be worse for Latinos because of the dramatic cultural shift for new immigrants leaving a rural and agrarian culture tied to traditional foods in Mexico, and adapting to the pace and diet of modern America.

Barajas noted that Mexico is catching up. The rates of obesity and diabetes is creeping up in Mexico as well, she said.

Dr. Ray Lopez, who helped do the health screenings for the Oxnard program, said the approach is meant to be preventive. By changing the parents’ habits, it may also help change the children’s.

“What’s happening now is that the farmworker community is at risk,” Lopez said. “They’re consuming more high fat, high carb food because it’s cheaper. And if you’re working in the fields all day you’re less likely to want to come home and kick the ball around with your kids.”

Becerra’s day overseeing a group of 30 pickers often starts before the sunup and can go until late. It’s hard work, but he couldn’t think of anything better to do.

“I love my job,” he said. Despite being tired at the end of the day, he and his wife have made it a habit to take their kids out and walk around the large apartment complex where they live in Oxnard.

He’s changed what he eats at lunch, eating a broccoli, onion and chile verde taco instead of meat. He stopped drinking soda.

Becerra hopes his children will learn by example.

“My kids see what I’m eating,” he said. “They see I’m interested in improving my health.”