Last month, new data came out ranking California as the 12th skinniest state in the union. But, you wouldn’t know it living in the San Joaquin Valley, where one in three people is obese and therefore at risk for a slew of diseases, including diabetes, heart attack and early death.
In her first story in this series, reporter Lauren Whaley profiled an obese 15-year-old and his attempts to get healthy. In this second story, we follow a nutrition educator who’s been teaching parents across Fresno County how to eat right and who learns a few things herself along the way.
Sandra Ortega shows a classroom full of parents how to make a smoothie. The 39-year-old single mom wears a bright orange apron over her clothes. It says "I Teach Nutrition."
Ortega spends her days working with low-income, mainly Spanish-speaking parents.
"There's one lady in my class that says she eats seven tortillas every time she eats. Really? Well, how about we do this, eat two tortillas instead of seven. If you drink a soda every day, how about you drink a soda every week. Or, you drink two sodas a week instead of seven."
In Fresno County, it's estimated that over a third of adults drink at least one soda per day. A single can of soda contains more sugar than a Snickers bar.
Ortega's colleague, Yolanda Lopez, has been teaching nutrition classes for more than 30 years. The problem, she says, is getting worse.
"I'm so adamant about telling them, 'cut back on using all that sugar all that salt that you use in your diet. My gosh. Stop going out to fast food restaurants so often.' I'm just amazed by how much people do not know," says Lopez.
Both women work for the University of California Cal-Fresh Nutrition Education Program. But, even they – the instructors – struggle.
Sandra Ortega, herself is overweight. When she started teaching in December, she weighed 245 pounds. Now, she's down to 225.
"That's one of the first things I tell them. I know that I'm overweight but I am working [it]. Everything I'm teaching you is what I'm doing in my own house. I'm not standing up here telling you to do something that I'm not doing myself."
Like when she buys food for her family, she no longer insists on the bulk bags of sugary cereal.
"I was thinking in my mind, we're saving more money because we're getting more cereal for less money. But, we were eating sugar. It was like eating sugar," says Ortega.
Ortega isn't the only one trying to cut sugar. Advocates in Fresno petitioned the school board just two weeks ago to ban sugar-filled chocolate milk from Fresno Unified school menus.
Statewide, there have been a lot of policy and politics around obesity recently: from a soda tax that died in the Assembly to the annual state physical fitness test for school kids that was recently saved from budget cuts.
The Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program is leading the charge in the valley. Here's the program's Genoveva Islas-Hooker.
"At some point in the future – we will all feel like of course, kids need moderate to vigorous physical activity in their school day and of course every community should have a farmer's market and we should have sidewalks and streetlights and parks and you know really begin to change the food environment where our retail and what's being sold to us is food that's both nutritious, affordable and keeping us healthy."
Back in her kitchen, educator Sandra Ortega says some of the problem may be the inability to acknowledge a problem.
It's unthinkable to some parents that their child might actually be part of the 40 percent of Fresno kids that are overweight or obese.
"I think with childhood obesity, I think what happens is that the parents pass on their bad habits to their kids. They've learned at a young age that, you know, putting soda in a baby bottle is OK," says Ortega.
At her house, Ortega slips spinach in fruit smoothies.
"My son likes Jamba Juice. So, I'm like, 'I'll make you some Jamba Juice,' you know? When I made it for him, I put orange juice, 100% orange juice, mangoes, frozen mangoes. Strawberries, banana and then, the yogurt and then the spinach. And then I gave it to him. 'Oh this is so good mom, there was spinach in there. I'm kind of sneaky. But, it works, you know?"
Ortega's teachings start and end in her own kitchen.
"They like vegetables a lot now," says Ortega in front of her sons.
Is that true? Her sons jump right in.
"Yeah, I like steamed broccoli, answers one. The other follows, "so do I."
Lauren Whaley is a reporter with the California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.