Image: Jose Roman & Ivonne Borrero
Josh Reynolds  /  AP
Jose Roman, 11, and his mother Ivonne Borrero stretch before taking a walk along the Boston Harbor. The family is participating in "We Can!", a federal anti-childhood obesity program that pushes subtle changes at home to help keep kids from growing out as they grow up.
updated 11/29/2007 12:35:45 PM ET 2007-11-29T17:35:45

Ivonne Borrero liked that her son’s teacher was pushing him to do good work. She just didn’t like the rewards: The pizza parties and Burger King coupons weren’t helping 11-year-old Jose’s waistline.

So Borrero and other parents asked for changes. The teacher responded by stopping the fatty prizes, and health officials introduced parents to We Can!, a federal anti-obesity program for children that pushes subtle changes at home. It’s now helping Jose and other kids avoid growing out as they grow up.

“Little, bitty changes have really made a big difference in all of our lives,” Borrero said.

National Institutes of Health officials were to announce Thursday that the We Can! program is teaming up with the Association of Children’s Museums, as well as the cities of Boston, Pittsburgh and Las Vegas, the three largest cities yet to adopt the 2-year-old initiative.

We Can! — short for Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity & Nutrition — is aimed at kids 8-13 and pushes commonsense steps to keep off weight, such as eating fewer high-fat foods, exercising more and spending less time staring at television and computer screens.

But it doesn’t just try to persuade kids to give up the fun foods and activities that pack on pounds. It relies on parents to make it easier for kids to make healthier choices.

In the Borrero home, the family staple of rice and beans is now cooked in canola or sesame seed oil, not vegetable oil. Portions are smaller. The Borreros drink more water and less juice. Jose’s grandmother has been asked to please not send those delicious cream-filled wafer cookies.

Meanwhile, Jose has joined a city tennis program and, with his mother and 18-year-old sister, is walking more. Everyone feels better, said Borrero, 48, a school psychologist.

Previous childhood obesity programs at her NIH agency, the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, didn’t include parents as much, so the message didn’t stick as well, said Karen Donato, We Can! program manager.

“Parents are role models for kids. They provide food for kids. They’re the people in charge,” Donato said.

Gradual approach pays off
The program began in 2005 amid sobering data about Americans and weight problems: About a third of U.S. children are overweight or obese. When obese children become obese adults, it’s much tougher for them to shed the weight, research shows.

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A community that officially commits to We Can! agrees to host numerous parent and youth events that promote the program. Besides the three cities being announced Thursday, five others — Roswell, Ga., South Bend, Ind., Gary, Ind., Armstrong County, Pa., and Carson City, Nev. — already are official We Can! communities. About 450 communities in 44 states are using some part of the program.

Borerro’s gradual approach has paid off with her son. She’s been surprised and thrilled to see him request a wrap, not a burger, during visits to the mall. He also voluntarily got rid of the unhealthiest candy from his Halloween bag.

It’s not that Jose isn’t interested in junk food anymore, his mother said. But now he knows what’s better for him, and there’s more room to negotiate an occasional treat.

“A brownie once in a while is not a bad thing,” she said.

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