Locals Respond as First Lady Turns Spotlight on Latino Food and Health

“While food might be love, the truth is we are loving ourselves and our kids to death,” Michelle Obama said.

As the Michelle Obama this week turned to the difficult topic of childhood obesity and food habits among Latinos, some Southern California farmers and chefs are fighting to keep a spotlight on the subject locally.

Speaking to the National Council of La Raza in New Orleans on Tuesday, the first lady noted the high rate of overweight and pre-diabetes among Latino children.

Hispanic Americans are more likely than white Americans to be obese or overweight, and are less likely to engage in physical activity, according to According to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health.

Obama told the conference that 40 percent of Hispanic-American children are overweight, and 50 percent are on track to develop diabetes. About a third of all American children are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“While food might be love, the truth is we are loving ourselves and our kids to death,” Michelle Obama said. “We need to start questioning the behaviors and beliefs that are making our kids sick -- like that uncle, dear uncle who dismisses this issue, but keeps slipping our kids candy; the grandmother who insists that a chubby baby is a healthy baby; the overworked sister who gives your nieces and nephews the foods they want instead of the nutrition they need."

It’s a message that resonates with celebrity chef Aaron J. Perez, who last year cooked for Michelle Obama. He said there's fear that traditions will be destroyed if home cooks departin from the classic instructions passed down by grandmothers.

“We're so accustomed to doing the same things that we feel if we modify it, it's not gonna taste the same,” he said.

But the Boyle Heights-bred chef has designed recipes for healthy alternatives that he says are just as satisfying as fat-laden traditional dishes.

He encourages Latino families to stop eating processed and microwaved foods and to make time to prepare healthy meals – which he acknowledges can require effort in the kitchen.

"My philosophy is: If you can't pronounce it, it's not good for you," Perez said.

He has taught a cooking class through First 5 LA, which has resources and recipes online for parents.

At the East Los Angeles farmers market – which recently expanded from one day a week to two because of increased demand – vendors sell fruits and vegetables and accept food stamps for payment.

“Changes need to happen at the home level,” said Josie Cervantes, an organizer with VELA, or Volunteers of East Los Angeles, which runs the farmers market. “People have to want to be healthier.”

In her address to the National Council of La Raza's annual conference, Michelle Obama likewise emphasized the change begins with consumers..

Latinos’ $1 trillion buying power have the potential to transform the marketplace, Obama said. But families have to buy healthier products for things to change, she emphasized.

“Goya can produce low-sodium products, but if we don’t buy them, they will stop selling them. Restaurants can offer healthy meals, but if we don’t order them, trust me, they will take that stuff off the menu, go back to the way it was,” Obama said. “It’s on us.”

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