A Conversation with Parents United for Healthy Schools Founding Leaders: “That’s when I knew this wo

August 03, 2012

This week, we’ve shared highlights from recent local and national recognition for Parents United for Healthy Schools and have introduced two of the remarkable parent leaders at the heart of the coalition’s success.

Today, as we wrap up this series, we’ll share a conversation with Guillermo Gomez and Jovita Flores, two of the founding leaders of Parents United in 2006. Today, both Guillermo and Jovita continue to be closely involved with the parent coalition: Guillermo serves as vice president of urban affairs for Healthy Schools Campaign, and Jovita is the manager of Parents United for Healthy Schools.

When you created Parents United for Healthy Schools, what did you hope to accomplish? Did you foresee the impact the coalition would have?

Guillermo: It was a huge challenge then, in 2004, 2005, 2006, to talk about childhood obesity and its impact on Latino and African-American communities. As we were going out there and trying to convey this message, we found that the people we were talking with were not familiar with health disparities, or the impact of healthy eating. There was a whole learning curve of sharing information about health disparities, talking about social justice, connecting the reality of childhood obesity in our communities to solutions both at home and in schools. Once people started seeing different dimensions of the problem and seeing possibilities for addressing it, then they were interested.

At the time, we thought of success as simply being part of the solution. Being at the table with [school] district officials to talk about the wellness policy — that was success. Talking with parents and learning that they had told other parents about these issues was a success. It was about creating dialogue and prompting discussions in the community and at schools.

We held a rally in 2006, the parents’ rally for healthy schools, that we consider the founding moment of Parents United. We were expecting 200 or maybe 300 parents to attend. More than 700 parents turned out. At that point, we knew we had really struck a nerve. We were there surrounded by parents who showed up to raise their voice for wellness in schools. That’s when I knew this would be bigger than we’d realized.

What are the most significant changes you’ve seen since Parents United was created in 2006?

Jovita: I see parents reaching the point where they want to take action much more quickly now. They are more aware and they are closer to the point where they realize they need to do something to find solutions to childhood obesity in their neighborhoods. Back when we started, I’d talk to moms about nutrition and they’d say “nope, I don’t need nutrition class.” They thought everything was fine. Now there’s more awareness. We talk about disparities, about kids’ health, about what we want for our kids. Now moms are ready to hear that the first time.

I still reach out to them with my personal story — that hasn’t changed. I tell them that diabetes runs in my family and I don’t want my kids to suffer like I have and like others in my family have. I share with them that we have high rates of diabetes and obesity in our community but I want my kids to be healthy. That story has not changed. The moms hear that and they tell me they see the same things but didn’t know how to make a change. And then we create activities and invite moms to join — aerobics class, my nutrition class that is more like a leadership class. We give them the tools to talk to their principal and say, “I want recess for my kids. This is why physical activity and nutrition are important.” They have tools and answers to change the trends so their children can be healthier.

Guillermo: We started with small changes — with serving fruit at breakfast meetings instead of doughnuts. At the time, this was shocking. Nobody could imagine a meeting without doughnuts. Now it’s completely normal. Parents tell me they’re shocked when they go to any meetings and the food isn’t healthy. They’re shocked when their kids are served unhealthy food at school, and they are ready to talk to teachers, other parents, and to the principal to create policies that make healthy snacks or healthy food part of the school’s standards and culture. We’ve seen a gradual but very powerful change in how parents see their own health and are prepared to take charge, for themselves and for their kids.

Parents United has had so many accomplishments over the years. What do you see as the biggest accomplishment?

Guillermo: The formation of Parents United is still our biggest accomplishment! To bring together a group of parents who became leaders around wellness, to propose change to healthy food at the district level and then see the food change. Over time, parents began to see what the wellness policy could do — or rather, what they could do by leveraging the district wellness policy. This whole concept of conceiving a wellness team that involves parents and getting that written into the district wellness policy was a huge accomplishment that has been the foundation for many of our victories since then. That has positioned Parents United to successfully advocate for the return of recess, for healthier school food and for breakfast in the classroom.

Jovita: When I think back to the accomplishments we’ve had over the years, I think about my own experiences with parents. Each time a parent started to see the connection between nutrition and health, that was an accomplishment. Every time a parent then had a moment when she saw the disconnect between healthy food at home and unhealthy food at school, that’s an accomplishment — when she said “hey, I serve my kids healthy food, why aren’t you serving them healthy food at school?” Parents have had so many big successes at schools and even across the city. These big successes start with every parent who sees the problem and sees that she can be the one to help make a change.

Many thanks to Jovita and Guillermo for sharing their reflections. Congratulations to Parents United for Healthy Schools for their recent national recognition and for the daily accomplishments of giving parents the tools to create a healthy future for their children.