McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — A new study by the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley on preschoolers living in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas found a disproportionate rate of obesity among these four-year-olds that is tied to poverty on the border.

The South Texas Early Prevention Study-PreK, or STEPS-PreK, study is the first ever to concentrate on children this young, according to Dr. Zasha Romero, a UTRGV professor and researcher on this project conducted by the university’s Department of Health & Human Performance.

It is the first study to show a significant correlation between food insecurity, poor diet and obesity in such young children living in the border region, he told BorderReport.

The findings were released Wednesday during an online panel discussion with Romero and other researchers along with the superintendents for two area school districts, which participated in the two-year study.

A total of 1,277 children from La Joya Independent School District and Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD, both in Hidalgo County, were studied for two years starting in 2018 through a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Health and Human Services.

The eating, exercising and family habits of the children were studied in preschool and they had intended to follow them through kindergarten when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, he said.

But, even the shortened study found these border “Hispanic children experience a disproportionate higher risk” for obesity. Eighteen percent of the children studied were obese, compared to the 11% national average. And, 57% had parents living in poverty. Other findings included:

  • Almost half of the families reported that either sometimes, most of the time or always they ran out of food before month’s end.
  • Half of the students have family members diagnosed with hypertension and diabetes.
  • Of the total servings of fruits and vegetables served in their school cafeterias, the children consumed only 40% of the fruits and 19% of the vegetables, throwing the rest away each day.

“We found not that students aren’t offered healthy foods but that these eating disorders are learned at home at an early age,” Romero said. “The importance of this is planting that little seed early on so the children won’t have to be a statistic of chronic illness.”

Dr. Roberto Treviño of San Antonio took part in the preK study. (Web photo)

Improper nutrition can lead to emotional and physical imbalances, which are especially worrisome during this coronavirus pandemic, said Dr. Roberto Treviño, a San Antonio physician who was part of the study.

“These children are coming from homes with unhealthy behaviors,” Treviño said. “Either we all work together to raise healthy children or the alternative is I’m going to see them as adults in the intensive care units, and it doesn’t have to be like that.”

Iron helps with strength and energy. Potassium, which is found in bananas, helps to fuel the brain. Vitamins A and C help to regulate blood sugar and metabolize fats. But Treviño said many South Texas border families cannot afford to buy foods high in vitamins and minerals and instead buy junk food, which is high in carbohydrates and sugars and leads to higher rates of obesity, sluggish behavior and can diminish learning abilities.

“Despite these children not having enough food to eat, they still had higher rates of obesity than U.S. children their same age,” the study found. The obesity prevalence for boys was 19.2% and 16.8% for girls, according to a paper on the study, “Social and Health Risk Factor Levels of Preschool Children Living Along the Texas‐Mexico Border,” which was recently published online in The Journal of School Health.

We need to teach our children that they do not need to grow up to be a statistic.”

UTRGV Professor Dr. Zasha Romero

Nationwide, 13% of adults of Mexican descent have diabetes and 1 out of five Hispanics have hypertension.

“In the Rio Grande Valley chroic illness is the norm,” Romero said. “Tío, mamá, papá are plagued by some kind of chronic illness. We need to teach our children that they do not need to grow up to be a statistic.”

Both school districts that took part in the study implemented a free bilingual educative teaching program that infused information on diet, nutrition and exercise into daily student curriculum. The Bienestar Coordinated School Health Program assessed the effectiveness of adding more vegetables, legumes, whole grains, as well a exercise into the lives of these four-year-olds. The program, which was offered free to all students, also encouraged every family to walk at least 150 minutes per week.

LaJoya, Texas, ISD Superintendent Dr. Gisela Saenz (Web photo)

“The Bienestar bilingual curriculum provides information on health, PE and food service and encourages students and their families to live healthier lifestyles,” LaJoya ISD Superintendent Dr. Gisela Saenz said.

The program is the only bilingual health curriculum approved by the Texas Education Agency targeted to such young children, Romero said. He said UTRGV is working to secure more grants to make the curriculum available to more school districts for free in the future.

PSJA Superintendent Dr. Jorge Arredondo said as COVID-19 has so many students learning virtually from home, his district is adding bilingual YouTube videos with tips on how to prepare healthy meals and involve children in the meal preparation. The school district also offers thousands of meals per week for students and families to ensure they continue to eat healthy while at home during this pandemic.

“The research is very clear and consistent,” Arredondo said. “Students are more likely to get As and Bs when they have breakfast in the morning, when they exercise, when they include vegetables and we have to integrate that early in our kids.”