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U.S., Mexican officials launch outreach campaigns

The Associated Press - ATLANTA

Estimating not even 50 percent of Mexicans in the United States who are eligible for Department of Agriculture programs take advantage of them, U.S. and Mexican officials pledged Tuesday to make Hispanics more aware of programs available to them.

The purpose of their meeting, which included Mexican consuls from Salt Lake City to Orlando, was to find ways to implement recent agreements between Mexico's Foreign Ministry and USDA officials on Hispanic access to nutrition programs as well as housing and business loans.

"In this campaign, what we're doing is to make the Mexican community aware of who's eligible for USDA programs in everything that has to do with WIC, school lunches, food stamps," said Bosco Marti, the director for North America at Mexico's Foreign Ministry.

WIC _ the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children _ offers pregnant women, new mothers and their young children vouchers to buy certain foods tailored to their ages, breast-feeding habits or dietary needs. Immigrants are eligible if children are born in the United States, Marti said.

Legal immigrants are eligible for food stamps, while school lunches are open to everybody regardless their immigration status, said Roberto Salazar, who heads the USDA's Food and Nutrition Services.

"It's imperative that we continue to reach out to Spanish-speaking Americans," Salazar said.

Lack of information on a healthier lifestyle translates into an epidemic among immigrants _ some 70 percent of Mexicans become overweight or obese after arriving in the United States, Salazar said. Twenty-five percent of Mexican-American children are overweight or obese, compared to 15 percent of all Americans.

"It behooves us as a country to insure that we're taking preventive steps for all Americans," he said.

And the best way to reach the Spanish-speaking community is through the consulates with whom they have already built a rapport, officials agreed.

"Lots of Hispanic people are shy of the government," said Stone Workman, Georgia's director of the USDA's Rural Development office.

That office launched a program to promote home ownership and business loans for Hispanics in rural U.S. areas. Loans require U.S. citizenship, Workman said.