Welcome to ‘America’: Food Deserts, Diet and the Latino Family

By Esperanza Mendez, Adios Barbie Fellow

I have a distinct childhood memory that still stings every time I think about it. I was a chubby, brown, happy ten year-old out to dinner with my family. When we arrived at the local buffet, and followed the hostess to our table, I already was mentally filling my plate with all of my favorite foods: mac and cheese, fried chicken…topped off with piles of ice cream.

As I rounded the corner of the buffet table–my plate filled with all of the above and then some–I ran into a classmate. His name was Diego, and he was easily one of the heartthrobs of my third grade existence. Tall, dark, and a pee-wee football player, he exemplified all that was out of my pudgy league.

He took one look at my plate and said words that continue to haunt me to this day: “Damn, Esperanza. Save some for the rest of us.”

What I did not know then was how intricately interwoven my diet and eating habits, along with that of my family, and that of so many Latinos in the United States were to issues of food access and overall injustice. When I was 16 I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, an endocrine disorder that is often blamed on poor diet and for which weight gain is often also blamed. This issue was much bigger than my family or me.

I wanted to crawl into a hole and die after my run-in with Diego. I walked back to my table with my head down, and slumped into my chair, willing it to gobble me up. Always someone with a tremendous appetite, I glumly pushed my food on my plate around with my fork.

A true Mexican immigrant, my mom believed that a full belly was the cure for everything. Concerned, she asked why I wasn’t eating. I shrugged. She proceeded to touch my forehead to see if I had a fever.

Later, I found out that I was not alone. In Mexico, where my parents grew up, a full belly consisted of frijoles de la olla (homemade beans), simmering caldos (stews), and plenty of fruits and vegetables picked straight from the backyard. Upon immigrating to the United States however, many Latino families experience acculturation beyond new language acquisition and values. The culture of their food changes, too.

According to a study conducted in 2011, dietary acculturation occurs when members of a minority group adopt the eating patterns and food choices of the host country. Now, my parents had a myriad of food choices with which to feed their family–the American buffet I found myself at as a child served as the perfect metaphor for these seemingly endless, often very unhealthy choices that we were exposed to growing up in the US.

Ultimately, acculturation to the United States impacts Latino immigrants’ lifestyle and dietary behaviors. Paired with the notion that many Latino parents have equating increased weight with achieving higher social status and overall health, Latino immigrants continue to need access to education around health and healthful eating.

According to a special report tied to the state of obesity, 42% of Latino adults are considered “obese” compared to 33% of whites. What’s more, over 22% of Latino children ages 2 to 19 are considered above healthy weight, compared to 14% of their white counterparts.

People of color are not only disproportionately fat and considered “obese”, they are also are more likely to suffer from  binge-eating disorder, and to be shamed for being fat and brown or black, all while having less access to healthful, nutrient-rich foods due to their socio-economic status.

“It’s hard to tell what the cause of precocious puberty and related reproductive disorders (like PCOS) can be,” says Olga Montes, a reproductive health educator of over 20 years in the Coachella Valley. “There are so many factors, including but not limited to the hormones and chemicals in the food that we eat. It is also absolutely a cultural phenomenon.”

The Center for American Progress found that some of the intervening factors that affect obesity rates in Latino and Black communities include eating patterns and lack of accessibility to healthy food options, lower levels of physical activity, the quality of the built environment, social or cultural attitudes around body weight, and reduced access to primary care or nutritional counseling. These factors may be driven by income, culture, and other dynamics that result in a disproportionate rate of obesity.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, obesity, and in turn, PCOS,  is also a common problem among women of reproductive age, and is associated with numerous reproductive consequences including anovulation, irregular menses, subfertility, miscarriage, and adverse pregnancy outcomes with lasting effects.

It was not until I was in my mid-twenties, and a recent college graduate, that I learned about nutrition, and about a concept called Food Justice. I grew up in the Eastern Coachella Valley, which is considered a food desert.

A food desert can be described as a geographic area where residents have limited access to affordable, healthy food options (especially fresh fruits and vegetables). The East Coachella Valley is surrounded by beautiful, sprawling mountains, and miles and miles of
desert between towns. I grew up in Oasis, an unincorporated community nestled deep in the heart of the Coachella Valley, about 45 miles Southeast of vacation-hotspot Palm Springs.

In rural communities, like the Eastern Coachella Valley, supermarkets can be many miles away from people’s homes with public transportation limited or scarcely available, further hindering access to fresh foods.

The East Valley is home to communities like Mecca, Coachella, and North Shore, and subsequently over 70,000 acres of agricultural land, producing close to $600 million dollars of crops and agricultural products per year. The majority of the residents in these communities
are migrant farm workers. The irony being that although residents work to harvest the crops that are grown, they do not have adequate access to the whole foods markets that sell them.

My parents fed me from a place of love, as so many parents do. Restaurants in the fast food industry in the United States are profiting tremendously from this understanding of the Hispanic-Latino market.

A comprehensive meta-review of 27 studies in 10 countries conducted in 2013 found that unhealthy food is about $1.50 cheaper per day, or about $550 per year, than healthy food.

While $550 per year is certainly burdensome for many people, that cost figure does not include any long-term healthcare costs as a result of eating a poor diet. Ellen Gustafson, the co-founder of Food Tank, further explains the “true” costs of so-called cheap food: “Hidden health costs [like those caused by] our global obesity epidemic and the food-related public health issues of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer are certainly not included in the cost of your fast food meal,” she writes.

I write this as I prepare my one year-old daughter’s lunch. I was one of the lucky ones: I was able to educate myself, change my eating habits, and keep a pregnancy to term. It is up to me to raise a member of the next generation as healthy, educated, and empowered as possible.

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