Preventing diabetes and obesity at age 3 and 4: Preschool Parent Health Project launches at SAISD

Fifteen 3- and 4-year-old children at Tynan Early Childhood Education Center are seated at a table in their classroom ready to eat lunch in a “family-style dining” setting, meaning they will serve themselves from today’s menu of fish nuggets, macaroni, mixed vegetables and milk.

Ginger Mullaney, project manager with the Social and Health Research Center (SAHRC), asks them: “Who has carrots on their plate?” “What color are carrots?” “Are they hot or cold?” and “What are carrots good for?”

“It allows us to see if they comprehend what fruits and vegetables are,” Mullaney later explains. “We’re incorporating what they’re already learning and also helping them build their vocabulary.”

Even more important, these 15 children, or rather 260 total at Tynan, are part of a pilot program called the Preschool and Parent Health Project (PPHP), funded by a $750,000 grant from the University Health System for three years. The PPHP is designed to prevent diabetes and obesity in preschoolers because of San Antonio’s rising diabetes rate in kids, most notably in children living in households within or near poverty levels.

“We work to improve the nutrition, physical activity and health education in 3- and 4-year-olds to reduce their risk of developing type 2 diabetes,” said Dr. Roberto Treviño, director of the SAHRC, which oversees the pilot project. “We really need to get parents involved in their child’s health education, so we’ll be doing home visits and phone calls.”

The project, he adds, is also part of the Eastside Promise Neighborhood to improve educational achievement and revitalization of the community. “There’s a lot of high poverty in this area,” Treviño said. “We want to bring in resources through evidence-based health education materials and curriculum.”

The curriculum is based on the successful Bienestar/NEEMA coordinated school health program created by the SAHRC 18 years ago. It has been implemented in 27 school districts reaching more than 600,000 school children. Bienestar has been recognized by the Agency for Healthcare Research and the National Cancer Institute for decreasing obesity and glucose levels, as well as increasing fitness levels and fiber intake in elementary and middle school children. “This is our first experience with 3- and 4-year-olds,” Treviño said. “Health behaviors are being conditioned from uterus to age 5, so we need to catch them early.”

The curriculum works with PE teachers, health educators, food service workers and parents to help achieve student goals. For example, in the physical education component, preschool children will participate in 100 physical activities throughout the year. “We’ll put music on, and the children will dance. The idea is that they will be having fun and moving their bodies,” Treviño said.

Food service workers serve family-style meals, so that children can serve themselves and will be encouraged to eat more fruits and vegetables. And parents will receive home visits and be screened for hypertension and diabetes. “We find these young parents, 20 to 25, with high blood sugars and high blood pressure, and that behavior is emulated at home,” the director said. “The purpose is to make parents conscious about improving health and nutrition at home.”

Preschool children will have their height, weight and body mass index tested at the beginning of the school year and again in May. Objectives are to reduce children’s obesity rates by 10 percent, increase physical activity in steps by 10 percent and increase dietary fiber intake in grams by 10 percent.

“Diabetes and obesity is easier to prevent than fix,” Treviño said.

Tynan Principal Gregorio Velazquez said he supports the health project and is confident it will achieve the goals of helping prevent type 2 diabetes and obesity in 3- and 4-year-olds participating in the program.

“This program is needed to assist our student population because not only will it give the Social and Health Research Center the knowledge on how best to implement the program, but also how to relay this information to our parents that will impact their children in healthy eating,” he said.