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June 15, 2011

Immigrants' Eating Habits May Improve with Access
To Familiar Foods

A new study published in the journal Social Science and Medicine indicates U.S. immigrants consider farmers’ markets closest in similarity to home-country food venues.

1NORTHAMPTON, Mass. – Neighborhood farmers’ markets not only offer more sustainable alternatives to chain supermarkets — they may also prevent the development of bad eating habits among immigrants faced with new dietary choices after moving to the U.S., according to a new study.

The study, based on data gathered from about 345 low-income immigrant Hispanic women living in New York City, offers important insight into the diet preferences of a population at risk for obesity.

Yoosun Park, associate professor at the Smith College School for Social Work, led the research with faculty at Columbia University and the University of Chicago.

Critical to the findings, researchers noted, was the fact that the immigrant women did not define “healthy food” as many Americans do – in terms of nutritional content, such as the percentage of protein or fat. Instead, freshness, as indicated by time since harvest, and purity, as indicated by the absence of preservatives and processing, were the primary axes around which healthy food was defined.

Study participants consumed more fruit, vegetables and juice when there was a farmers’ market within the neighborhood. Neighborhood supermarket or grocery stores did not have the same effects on their diets.

“The Hispanic immigrant women in our study clearly preferred farm-to-table foods and expressed deep objections to stored and packaged food,” said Park. “Farmers’ markets were described as closest approximations to home-country food venues.”

And while Hispanic immigrants seem to share the tastes and consumption preferences associated with the wealthiest strata of Americans who shop at high-end food stores that put a premium on locally sourced food, such retail practices have not penetrated into low-income urban neighborhoods.

Park’s findings suggest that initiatives to increase access to healthy food in such neighborhoods should be broadened beyond their current focus on the development of supermarkets and grocery stores, to include farmers’ markets and other farm-to-table programs.

The study, which used data collected throughout a three-year period beginning in 2003, was funded by grants from the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.


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