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The Road to Healthier Eating

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Taking very different tacks, Tabashir Nobari and Mirna Troncoso Sawyer are painting a more detailed portrait of the factors that place immigrant families at risk for obesity, pointing the way toward strategies that could be effective in combatting the phenomenon.

The tendency for immigrant families to adopt unhealthy American diets over time has long been recognized as a public health concern. But for two Fielding School doctoral students, more explanation is required. Taking very different tacks, Tabashir Nobari and Mirna Troncoso Sawyer are painting a more detailed portrait of the factors that place immigrant families at risk for obesity, pointing the way toward strategies that could be effective in combatting the phenomenon.

A young woman, Tabashir Nobari, standing in the grocery store smiling.
Tabashir Nobari

Nobari, a doctoral student interested in the impact of neighborhoods on child obesity risk, notes that there is growing recognition of the importance of the local food environment: Poorer neighborhoods, where residents are more likely to be overweight or obese, are often characterized by a preponderance of unhealthy fast-food restaurants and stores selling mostly processed foods, with minimal access to affordable fresh produce. But less attention has been paid to how child obesity risk is influenced by the socio-cultural aspects of neighborhoods – a factor Nobari suspected was particularly relevant for immigrant families, who may lack the language skills to fully participate in their new living environments.

With that in mind, Nobari led a group that explored whether young children of low-income immigrant families would be at reduced obesity risk if they lived in immigrant enclaves – neighborhoods where most people share language and culture – thus enabling these families to benefit from social support. Nobari examined the relationship between body mass index among more than 250,000 low-income children ages 2-5 and the concentration of neighborhood residents speaking the same language as the children’s mothers, using data from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children in Los Angeles County, as well as from the U.S. Census.

“The stronger social networks in these neighborhoods may serve to reduce the stress in the mothers, strengthen cultural norms regarding healthy diet and body size, and provide information on available resources these families can access. Immigrant enclaves may also improve the food environment by encouraging businesses to cater to more traditional cultural tastes.”
— Tabashir Nobari

Reporting in the peer-reviewed journal Social Science & Medicine, Nobari’s team concluded that for young children in low-income immigrant families, living in an immigrant enclave lowers the obesity risk. “This says that the social capital of the neighborhood – the sense of belonging – is very important,” Nobari says. “The stronger social networks in these neighborhoods may serve to reduce the stress in the mothers, strengthen cultural norms regarding healthy diet and body size, and provide information on available resources these families can access. Immigrant enclaves may also improve the food environment by encouraging businesses to cater to more traditional cultural tastes.”

For her dissertation, Sawyer was determined to go beyond the observation that the diet among immigrant Latinos tends to become unhealthier over time. “I wanted to go into people’s houses and see how an immigrant family’s daily life influenced the decisions about what they were going to eat,” she says.

A young woman, Mirna Troncoso Sawyer, standing in a grocery store smiling.
Mirna Troncoso Sawyer

Sawyer was granted such access through a partnership with Grimmway Academy, a charter school in the Central Valley community of Arvin, California, that features an “edible schoolyard” – an organic garden and kitchen classroom integrated into the curriculum to promote healthy eating. “It’s like an oasis in this community that is saturated with junk food,” Sawyer says. Through the partnership, Sawyer recruited 21 low-income Latino immigrant families willing to be interviewed and observed at home, school and in the community over the course of two years. Sawyer found thatin some families, parents feeling the stress of long working hours and the demands of caring for multiple children adopt a “path of least resistance” approach, serving their children the food they prefer rather than healthy and/or traditional fare.

But Sawyer also saw evidence that when children are exposed to healthy foods – in this case, through their school – they are more likely to request such foods at home. Her study was conducted during the initial phases of Grimmway’s “from scratch” school lunch program. Sawyer found that within the same families, children at the charter school began requesting that their parents provide the fresh fruits, vegetables and other foods they were eating at school, while siblings attending other schools preferred fast or processed food.

“You drive past the fields and see all these fruits and vegetables, then you see families picking up their children from school in their farmworker clothes and realize that most of what is available to them is not raw, but processed food. Unfortunately, this is how health disparities are propagated.”
— Mirna Troncoso Sawyer

The daughter of Mexican immigrants whose father had spent time doing farm work in the Central Valley after arriving in the United States, Sawyer was struck by the irony that in Arvin, as in many Central Valley communities, immigrant Latino workers harvest produce and fruit for the nation – but have little access to it for their own families.

“You drive past the fields and see all these fruits and vegetables, then you see families picking up their children from school in their farmworker clothes and realize that most of what is available to them is not raw, but processed food,” Sawyer says. “Unfortunately, this is how health disparities are propagated.”