Diets Modified in Montebello : The Cholesterol Alarm Sounds at School

Times Staff Writer

Harumi Hatakeyama says she is rediscovering tradition.

“I’ve gone back to cooking Japanese food,” she said as she cleaned a pile of iwashi , a fish similar to mackerel, and sliced tofu for her family’s evening meal. Hatakeyama now prepares fish and vegetable dishes that her parents once routinely served, but that she had stopped putting on the table in favor of simpler meat and potatoes.

The Soffa and Guzman families, on the other hand, say they have found new alternatives to their favorite but less healthy traditional meals.

Larry and Esther Soffa now shun fatty lamb, homemade corned beef and rich pastries for skinned chicken. And Theresa Guzman has replaced her son’s usual after-school snack of taquitos and nachos with fruit, oat bran muffins or cholesterol-free bread.


Alarming Facts

In each case, the families modified their diets for the sake of their children who attend La Merced Intermediate School. They were spurred by some alarming facts recently uncovered in a $170,000 health study being conducted by the Montebello Unified School District. The district’s Health and Fitness Research Project--now entering its third and final year of testing at La Merced--has found, among other things, that:

About 80% of La Merced’s students are overweight.

Of 426 students who volunteered for blood tests, 37% had seriously high serum cholesterol due to poor nutrition and lack of exercise.

Cholesterol, which clogs arteries and is a major cause of heart attacks and strokes, contributes to an estimated 650,000 American deaths each year, according to Cal Poly Pomona researcher Dr. Stan Bassin. Cardiovascular disease costs Americans an average of $50 billion in medical bills yearly, according to Bassin.

The findings have spurred several state lawmakers to call for legislation.

“Our children are virtual time bombs, medical conditions waiting to happen,” Assemblyman Charles M. Calderon (D-Whittier) said. Calderon and Assemblymen Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) and Charles W. Bader (R-Pomona) have introduced a three-bill package that is under review by the Assembly Education Committee.

Bill Calls for Study


First, a bill written by Calderon--whose district includes Montebello--would require the state university system to perform a health study in 10 public school districts.

A bill by Bader would require every elementary school to have a physical education specialist with extensive training in health and nutrition. Many school districts do not employ such an instructor in the lower grade levels.

Finally, a bill by Hayden would require cholesterol testing for all fifth-graders in the state. The average cost per child would be about $25, officials predict.

Montebello school officials suspected in 1985 that the general health of district students was not good. So they sought advice from a team of nutritionists from Cal Poly Pomona. La Merced students were chosen for study because of the school’s ethnic diversity. About 72% are Latino, 15% are Asian and 13% are Caucasian. The students were tested in 1987 and 1988, and will be examined for a final time in May.


When Alan Hatakeyama, 11, was tested last year, for instance, he was found to have a blood cholesterol level of 223, said La Merced Vice Principal Rosina Spitzer. Claudia Soffa, 12, had a level of 286, and 11-year-old Keith Guzman’s level was 230, Spitzer said.

Less Red Meat

Blood cholesterol above 200 is considered dangerous in adults, researcher Bassin said. Between 17% and 20% of the La Merced children who were tested had levels above 200, officials found.

“Maybe it’s my fault, because I like to cook him tostaditos and flautas, " said Keith Guzman’s grandmother, who lives with her daughter’s family and does the cooking. She said she now prepares low-cholesterol meals. She buys cholesterol-free bread, margarine and other staples, and has cut back on serving red meat.


Claudia Soffa said she has acquired a taste for healthy foods since being told that her cholesterol was among the highest of any student tested.

“I like spaghetti and stuffed peppers,” Claudia said. “But I eat more vegetables now, like cauliflower and broccoli.”

The La Merced study has raised everyone’s awareness that there is an urgency in addressing cholesterol in children, district administrator Norm Kirschenbaum said.

Overall Concerns


In addition to high levels of cholesterol, researchers found that the overall health of most La Merced students was worse than anticipated, as demonstrated by the high percentage of excess weight.

“Most of these kids have a passive life style,” Kirschenbaum said. “There was an age when you went out and walked, climbed trees. You were active. Today’s children come home and either sit in front of the TV or a computer game.”

During the project, researchers took a variety of measurements--including body-fat composition, blood pressure, strength and endurance--to determine the health of children, Kirschenbaum said. Although only a portion of the students consented to cholesterol blood tests, the entire student body of 1,030 underwent the other health screenings.

“It’s one thing to have kids read right and compute and be brilliant, but if they are going to die at age 35, what have they gained?” Kirschenbaum said.


High cholesterol among students was also found recently in an ongoing study by the Westminster Unified School District in Orange County. Officials there tested cholesterol levels in fourth-graders attending the district’s 13 elementary schools over the last three years, said Joey Van Kamp, who is directing the research.

Oat Bran Served

When the Cal Poly researchers learned of the Westminster study, they got permission from school officials to begin serving schoolchildren oat bran products to lower the cholesterol levels, Van Kamp said. La Merced officials said they hope to conduct a similar test of the affects of oat bran on high cholesterol, but so far they lack the money to pay for it.

As a result of the La Merced findings, Montebello school officials began urging parents to make changes at home that promote good health and nutrition.


School officials last year recruited employees of Beverly Hospital in Montebello and members of the Los Angeles Dodgers to “increase the health consciousness of the children” with pamphlets, celebrity appearances and lectures on low-cholesterol alternatives, Bassin said.

The final results of the health study will be published in the Western Medical Journal after the final round of testing in late May.

School officials will use the results to begin a districtwide “intervention phase,” in which parents, teachers and children will meet in workshops to discuss methods of lowering cholesterol levels, Kirschenbaum said. Officials will also rewrite many traditional school cafeteria menus to include more low-cholesterol lunches.

Salad Bar Alternative


Meanwhile, under the guidance of researchers, La Merced cafeteria workers have started offering a salad bar as an alternative to the regular offerings of chicken-fried steak, french fries, burritos, pizza, hot dogs and other cholesterol-rich foods, cafeteria supervisor Patricia Thompson said.

Because of budget constraints, Thompson said, the cafeteria offers the salad bar only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Otherwise, the children are free to choose a hot lunch, which is designed to include the four major food groups--meats, breads, vegetables and fruits, and dairy products--or grab a quick snack in an express line.

Menus are sent home at the first of each month so parents can monitor what their children are eating, said Shyrl Dougherty, the district’s director of food services. But often there is inadequate monitoring by parents and cafeteria workers, Dougherty said.

“I had a hot dog and fries today,” Keith Guzman admitted on a recent school day. He said he often bypasses the balanced lunches because “I tried them before. I don’t really like them.”