Monday, November 8, 2021

By Karen Villarreal

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – UTRGV researchers have been awarded $2.8 million over four years by the Texas Department of Health and Human Services, for a study aimed at reducing childhood obesity in preschool children.

Principal Investigator Dr. Roberto Treviño, director for the Social and Health Research Center in San Antonio, will work with four professors/researchers from UTRGV to help educate local school districts about physical activity and nutrition.

The researchers will implement the Bienestar coordinated school curriculum and study its impact through the “South Texas Early Prevention Studies/Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education” (STEPS/SNAP-ED) project.

Dr. Zasha Romero, associate professor in the UTRGV Department of Health and Human Performance, is a co-principal investigator on the project, along with:

  • Dr. Lin Wang, associate professor, Health and Human Performance. 
  • Dr. Michael Machiorlatti, assistant professor, Population Health and Statistics. 
  • And Dr. Lisa Salinas, clinical assistant professor, Health and Biomedical Sciences. 


The project specifically is aimed at reaching young children from low-income families, in an attempt to address the national and local increase in early-onset childhood diabetes.

“We have children as young as second grade in our elementary schools with full-blown diabetes,” Romero said. “They don’t even know they’re affected by things that could be handled, to a certain extent, by a healthier lifestyle.”

Romero said that, with the right education, children can break out of an unhealthy spiral.

“They can break that cycle of ailments that has plagued families for generations,” he said.


The Bienestar (well-being) curriculum satisfies Senate Bill 19, which requires schools to educate a coordinated health program approved by the Texas Education Agency.

Through the study, the comprehensive “Bienestar” health curriculum will be implemented at 27 schools from the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo and La Joya school districts.

The program is bilingual and takes an all-around approach that involves some 250 personnel, including administrators, teachers, and health educators from Doctors Hospital at Renaissance.

Teachers incorporate the Bienestar lesson plans on healthier lifestyles, and physical education coaches receive more than100 point-by-point calisthenics, strength, or cardiovascular activities for the children.

Parental liaisons will receive lessons to teach parents involved in the project. And kitchen staff will be trained on food preparation and ways to talk to the children about health-conscious choices.

Romero said the proposed curriculum reaches young audiences from all directions, while making efforts to make it entertaining.

“They’re getting the information all day, but in a fun way – by singing, doing activities and playing – so they don’t even realize they’re getting lessons,” Romero said.


The school partners will report what they implemented to the researchers, Romero said. Data collectors will use the FitnessGram, a nationally recognized fitness test, to see if the efforts are reflected in the students’ overall fitness results over time. 

Students and parents involved with the pilot studies tended to be on the healthier side regarding fitness, food consumption and lifestyle, he said.

By gathering data from about 2,000 children, the study can monitor the curriculum’s impact on a larger scale. The data then be compared to pilot program data to validate effectiveness.

“If we have positive results, we’re hoping to create legislation to help schools incorporate this curriculum statewide,” Romero said.


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.