By Mario Loera, Jr.
May 20, 2014
This month I'll travel to Sacramento to take part in ENACT Day, a yearly event that brings Californians to our state's Capitol to help build a healthier California. I'll go as a member of my community to advocate for healthy food and safe places for physical activity. Two big issues are on my mind: sugary drinks and the need for safer streets, including bike lanes, so kids can ride their bikes to school.
I grew up in Baldwin Park and still live there. It retains the roots of a poor, working-class community, a place of hard-working immigrants like the families of my childhood friends Juan and Alfredo. I remember the summer they befriended me, an 11-year-old boy growing up with a single mom and no brothers. Because of them, I joined the Boys Club boxing league and got my first job at 12 as a paperboy delivering the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.
I remember visiting their family -- Mom, Dad, Juan, Alfredo, two younger sisters and a toddler-aged brother -- in their tiny house. One visit made a real impression. The toddler was walking around with a baby bottle full of dark soda, the nipple of the bottle clasped firmly between his recently sprouted teeth, which were already yellowing and rotting away. I was only 11 or 12 at the time, and that image has never left me.
While one may read this and blame the parents for putting soda in his bottle, I think back to how the nearest market was a liquor store with all-too-easy access to sodas, liquor and other non-nutritional snacks. That store is still there and the milk and limited produce it carries is still expensive-not the best option for a young family with one car, more than one person commuting to work, and the nearest supermarket miles away.
Not long ago, at another friend's house, the family was drinking Sunny D with breakfast. I think they truly considered it a genuine (perhaps less expensive) alternative to orange juice. With its orange-juice appearance and "100% Vitamin C" statement on the container, I could see how my friend's mom would think it was "jugo," as she called it when she offered me some. I politely declined.
Given the commercials I've seen for Sunny-D, it made me wonder about the influence of corporate marketing, especially on Spanish-speaking Latinos. This is especially alarming since children prefer the sweet taste and easily become accustomed to it.
I think more education on sugary drinks and marketing is needed to counter the diabetes epidemic and staggering obesity trends among children, particularly in Latino and African-American communities -- two groups that bear the brunt of poor inner-city resources, planning, and city design. To me, a warning statement on such drinks seems more fitting than deceptive "100% Vitamin C" claims, especially with all the added sweeteners and sodium.
I mentioned being a paperboy as a kid. For a young boy with a working single mom, my bike was freeing-I rode for pleasure, work and school. After delivering my early-morning route on weekends, I would hang the newspaper sack over my handlebars and collect aluminum cans to sell at the recycling center. I got a lot of physical activity, but was lucky I wasn't seriously hurt -- I knew of kids that were. While a few additional traffic lights, crosswalks and stop signs have been installed, in many cases this has only occurred after tragic accidents, even loss of life. The other evening my wife and I were walking after dark and had to dodge a young kid riding his bike on the sidewalk. We need better-designed streets that keep kids and pedestrians safe, encourage physical activity and allow people to use the sidewalks.
As a young rider myself, I recall the times when older kids approached me in an attempt to steal my bike. Thankfully, I was able to get away, but these scary experiences still take place. That's why we need to create safer neighborhoods and bike lanes.
I'm looking forward to ENACT Day to raise a voice for those without one. I graduated from Cal State Long Beach and am now working to get into medical school. My goal is to become a physician, serve underserved communities and help patients understand the harm that comes from regular consumption of sugary drinks and lack of physical activity.
I want to act and be part of this broader conversation. I want these issues to get every Californian's attention and for more people to be active. As an aspiring physician, I want every Californian to know that sometimes it's better to "pay the grocer than the doctor" -- and we need to make sure our communities are set up in a way that makes that choice as easy as possible. That's why I'm going to Sacramento.