Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr.

OP-ED

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
September 13, 2004
CONTACT: Doris Sanchez
Phone: (512) 463-0127

Sen. Lucio Praises Rio Grande Valley NIRI

The health of the people of the Rio Grande Valley, according to a recent report, is deteriorating so rapidly, that decisive action must be taken. Kudos are due to a local group who is doing just that.

"Nourishing the Future" as the program is called, is the first project in the nation to select the Hispanic community for studying nutritional health and disproportionate rates of nutrition-related health problems.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley Nutrition Intervention Research Initiative (NIRI), a consortium of 10 academic institutions and governmental agencies, is working to not just study but find solutions to our health problems.

What are our most serious health problems? Unfortunately, the list is long and frightening, almost overwhelming. But the enthusiasm of NIRI is contagious. This group is focusing more on solutions than on the problems.

A recent study sponsored by members of NIRI revealed that in the four-county area of Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy, adult men and women have higher rates of overweight and obesity than the rest of the state, and incidence and mortality rates of cervical cancer (also attributable to poor nutrition) are higher in the Valley than anywhere else in the country. This region also has the highest rate of overweight boys in the state.

"We are ready to launch the next phase that should get us closer to results," said Bill Summers, President/CEO of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, the regional chamber of commerce working closely with NIRI. "We know what we're eating and why it's bad, but now we must educate young and old. For some people, eating healthy is a matter of lack of accessibility and affordability. We are addressing eating habits among Hispanics right here where the consequences of poor nutritional habits are most acute."

The study also indicated that Hispanics often don't know the nutritional or other content of foods they purchase--69 percent of Cameron County homemakers do not pay attention to nutrition labels.

A critical part of this project is to educate people so that they can make more informed choices when purchasing food for themselves and their families.

As Chairman of the Joint Interim Committee on Nutrition and Health in Public Schools, I have worked to improve nutritional habits and develop programs in the schools so that our children do not suffer from poor nutrition- and obesity-related diseases like diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and cardiovascular disease.

One of my biggest concerns about children throughout the state is that, regardless of socio-economic status or ethnicity, eating breakfast for many children is becoming obsolete. In Hidalgo County, 58 percent of homemakers surveyed said their children do not eat breakfast. Early school bus schedules and hectic work schedules for parents, either leave no time for breakfast or else the child just isn't hungry that early. Many families can't afford to feed their children breakfast. By the time they arrive at school, hunger pangs start and attention spans drop.

We now know that eating breakfast can improve test scores, concentration and behavior. Trips to the school nurse decrease. My goal is to implement a statewide Universal Feeding Program so that all children have access to a nutritional breakfast and a lunch in school. Free school meals are matched up to three to one by the federal government, and our savings in health care are greater if our children are healthier.

Changing eating patterns can be difficult, especially if one is older or of very low-income. Our traditional cuisine along the Border is tempting. Yet we must stop the continuing increase of diabetes among our young and old. Our children shouldn't be developing diseases formerly found primarily among older people.

The goals of NIRI now are to steer prevention and intervention programs, and to assure stewardship of resources and coverage to those in need.

The Partnership has said, "The Lower Rio Grande Valley cannot rise above these problems without help." I, for one, stand ready to offer assistance. Staff member working on this issue is Doris Sanchez. As always, if you have any input or questions regarding these or other matters, please do not hesitate to contact my office in Austin at 512-463-0127, Brownsville at 956-548-0227 and Weslaco at 956-968-9927.

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