By Dr. Deborah Gracia, DO
Here is a shocking statistic: More than one out of every three children in Florida is identified as clinically overweight. Poor nutrition is one of the leading causes of childhood obesity, which contributes to the development of chronic disease. This worrisome truth must be taken as a call for action to improve the nutritional habits of Florida’s youth.
This is why the state’s Community Health Centers have pioneered a new initiative to prevent this looming threat that affects our most vulnerable population – our children. Our local center launched an initiative called the MEND program – Mind, Exercise, Nutrition, Do it! – in partnership with the U.S. Health Resources and Service Administration, the National Association of Community Health Centers, and the Florida Association of Community Health Centers. MEND is a new and distinct way to combat and reduce childhood obesity by educating children and their families on proper nutrition. Many of the children I have met in the program are already battling chronic diseases at early ages, and others soon will be if they don’t make essential changes in their nutritional habits.
As chief medical officer at Borinquen Medical Centers of Miami-Dade, I am so excited to be part of bringing this agenda to life. When MEND was being planned, we recognized that children don’t determine their nutritional habits alone, so we found ways to engage parents as well. Our program, and another like it at the Jessie Trice Community Health Center, provides integrated care to address this problem, bringing together team members from various disciplines, including two nurse practitioners, a nutritionist, a mental health specialist, and a medical assistant.
Although the program is fairly new, I’ve already witnessed magic through MEND. I have seen children eating vegetables for the first time in their lives. Families are discovering nutritious food options through such activities as a supermarket tour with a nutritionist and learning how to make delicious, healthier meals in cooking classes offered by the program.
The MEND program is currently available at four locations in the Miami-Dade area, but it is truly needed statewide. In order to give more children and families the knowledge and tools to enjoy proper nutrition and health, we need the funding to make it happen and establish Florida as a leader in combatting the childhood obesity epidemic.
MEND is changing and saving lives – but to keep doing so, we need continued support from the public and our public officials. Florida has the fourth highest percentage of overweight children in the nation, and the number of children we can currently serve is far short of the number who need us. To continue providing this program to families, we need champions who understand the vital and cost-effective role Community Health Centers play.
The health and well-being of Florida’s future generations depend on it.
Dr. Deborah Gracia, DO, is the chief medical officer at Borinquen Medical Centers of Miami-Dade.