Healthy-Eating Teachers Target Cultural Taste Buds

Monday, April 9, 2012

Diabetes and obesity are big problems for Hispanic women in New York, particularly those in low-income areas such as the South Bronx. Nutritionists say lessons in healthier eating and cooking begin with a cultural understanding of food.

SOUTH BRONX, New York (WOMENSENEWS)--With diamond-shaped yellow signs screaming "Save More!" in Spanish and English, the Bravo supermarket here might not seem like the kind of place to think about nutrition.

With its large supply of packaged products and small fresh-produce section in the front, it could be considered a typical outpost of an inner-city "food desert." A place to avoid, in other words, it you're trying to shop for foods that might lower the high rates of obesity and diabetes in this heavily Hispanic part of New York.

One store shopper, Diana Perez, said the produce wasn't as good as other grocery stores in the city. "But when you can't get there, this is where we have to go," she said. "It's what you put out is what we're going to buy."

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But Bravo offers something that nutritional counselors call a key ingredient for discussing healthy eating with Hispanic shoppers: familiar foods. This Bravo stocks foods such as tomatillos and malangas and has an aisle filled with Goya products.

Listen to Juhie's Podcast on Feet in Two Worlds, on healthy eating in the immigrant community

"Outreach to Hispanic and immigrant communities has to include their cultural ideas of what food is," said Andrew Rundle, an associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University.

Rundle and other researchers released a study last year showing that low-income immigrant Hispanic women in New York City, like those in the organic and local food movements, prefer farm-to-table foods.

They defined "healthy food" by its freshness, whether it was locally grown and if it lacked preservatives or was processed, and consumed more fruit, vegetables and juice when there was a farmers' market within the neighborhood.

Health experts say that working with such cultural preferences can help combat obesity and related risks such as diabetes.

That's a priority for Hispanic women, who had the highest rate of the disease among demographic groups in a survey released in 2009 by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Hispanic women's rate of diabetes was 14.5 percent compared with 11.4 percent for male counterparts. Their obesity rate--at 28 percent--was high relative to many other groups in the city and exceeded the 23-percent rate of male counterparts.

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