The Rio Grande City Consolidated (Texas) Independent School District is located in Starr County, a poverty-stricken area that has a history of high death rates from diabetes. Located on the Mexican border, RGCCISD serves a 99 percent Hispanic population on 14 campuses. Of the nearly 10,800 students, 88 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. On top of that, Texas is ranked worst in the nation for health care coverage, with 26 percent of residents lacking insurance.
For several years, Superintendent Roel Gonzalez has taken responsibility not only for student learning but also for the health of each student. As early as 2003, Gonzalez made nutrition a priority by eliminating fried foods, desserts, whole milk and fatty salad dressings from cafeteria menus, and in their place, adding plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Meals are baked only and are full of whole grains—the pizza has whole grain crust, and the burritos are made with whole grain tortillas. Kids aren't going to just eat plain vegetables, so the cooks get creative in making fruits and vegetables appealing to kids. "We prepare a casserole with low-fat cheese, bread crumbs and green beans," says Patsy Ramirez, the district's nutrition director. "The kids love it. More kids eat fresh fruit if we put a dollop of whipped topping and a cherry on top."
To ensure wellness in elementary schools, the district uses the Coordinated Approach to Child Health (CATCH), an evidence-based school health program designed to promote physical activity and healthy choices and prevent tobacco use. In middle school, students take P.E. classes every day and are encouraged to participate in different sports during lunch period. High school students are required to take three semesters of P.E., after which they can take it as an elective. To encourage students to exercise after school, the district leaves facilities open for the community during after-school hours.
"Physical education is just as important as math and English," says Gonzalez, who walks every day, exercises at least five times a week and has a healthy diet. "Other districts are cutting P.E. classes, but we keep expanding. There needs to be a balance between fitness and academics."
The school district provides assistance with medical, dental and pharmacy needs and helps families who need diabetic supplies. While districts across the nation are cutting school nurses, each RGCCISD school has a nurse on staff every day. There are 21 students with diagnosed diabetes in RGCCISD, and more may be undiagnosed. Diabetes can lead to serious health problems, including heart disease and stroke. Recently, nurses have started looking for early signs of type 2 diabetes, such as acanthosis nigricans, which is dark, thick skin found in body folds and creases. Children with diabetes learn how to measure their glucose and receive support to manage diet and exercise.
Summer Fitness Challenge
One of the district's latest health programs was a summer fitness and weight-loss contest. The final hour of each school day was dedicated to fitness: walking, zumba dance classes, weight lifting or basketball. Eighty-five students and 197 employees participated in the program. Participants were weighed and had their body mass measured at the beginning and end of the program. In two months, the top student lost nine pounds and the top employee lost 35 pounds.
"The community has been more aggressive in treating obesity and diabetes in the last few years," says Ramirez. "Nutrition on its own will not work; there are several parts to this puzzle. You need education, exercise and a healthy diet."
Courtney Williams is assistant editor.