Parents have the power to make their kids walk right, talk right and speak right.

They can also make sure they eat right.

Learning to be a positive influence on their children was the goal for two dozen mothers and fathers who joined the three-month National Obesity Initiative from the La Capitale chapter of The Links Inc.

“You are the one who chooses the food for your children,” said Fatemeh Malekian, a food science professor at Southern University, while introducing the program. “They will eat what you give them. You have the power.”

For the past six years, Baton Rouge chapters of The Links Inc., a mostly African-American women’s service organization, have led the program through the Freeman-Matthews Head Start Center in Old South Baton Rouge. This year, they are expanding to include parents of children who attend Winbourne Elementary on the city’s north side.

“We saw a need,” said Luverne Travis, the local program coordinator. “We assessed the community and saw a need.”

Obesity, a medical term that describes a person with a high level of body fat, can cause serious health problems including heart disease and diabetes.

About one-third of Louisiana children are considered obese, according to the Pennington Biomedical Research Center. The state’s obesity rate is sixth in the nation with 33 percent of adults obese, according to data from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Black Americans struggle with obesity more, according to the statistics, and 41.9 percent of African-American Louisianans are obese.

To counter this, the Links program begins with parents of pre-school and elementary school children. The program teaches parents how to create healthful menus, read labels and shop for nutritious foods.

“Why not start with our little ones?” said Betty Kennedy, a community outreach specialist with Pennington who spoke at the program. “It will grow up strong in them. Then they won’t want all the sweet, sugary stuff, all the McDonald’s.”

At the kick-off program, the parents heard all the positive points of eating a diet low in bad fats and carbohydrates but high in fiber and protein.

Eat one cup of rice, not a big bowlful. Watch the carbohydrates — potatoes, chips, sugary things — because those can cause you to develop Type 2 diabetes.

They also heard the scary side of poor nutrition.

“If you do not watch it, your children will die at the age of 40,” Malekian said with a stern look. “That is no joke.”

While their parents listened to a lecture, the children sat in a semicircle across the hallway. Given glasses adorned with protein sources like chicken legs, they talked about topics ranging from proper hygiene to dairy intake with Karen Stevens, an LSU AgCenter nutrition agent who instructs a crowd of youngsters like the best of kindergarten teachers.

Stevens spun a wheel of topics and landed on hand washing, so the kids learned to wet their hands first, add soap and scrub for 20 seconds — about the time it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice.

“We do that to prevent the spread of what?” she asked the children. They shouted back, “Germs!”

The Links program provides plenty of lecturing, but the adult participants receive some hands-on training. Culminating in a trip to Piggly Wiggly, the students receive $100 to buy healthy meals.

After a Head Start program teacher recommended that she apply to the Links program, Rhonda Small, 49, said she was excited to attend. She needs all the assistance she can while helping to raise her grandchildren.

“It’s very beneficial,” she said. “We need to learn. Some people are not aware of how to eat properly. The fries and hamburgers and all the greasy things are really not what we should be eating.”

Most of all the nutrition experts stressed to the parents that they are the gatekeepers to their families’ nutrition. If they buy nutritious foods, their children will eat healthily. It is a lifestyle, Kennedy said.

“We do it everyday,” she said. “And we do it intentionally.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed on November 17, 2014, to reflect that Fatemeh Malekian’s correct title is as a food science professor at Southern University.