“Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.”
The sentiment behind this ancient Chinese proverb is the driving force behind a new study that aims to reduce childhood obesity among modern-day Latinos.
Instead of simply providing families with heart-smart shopping lists and recipes, Dharma E. Cortés, Ph.D., a health researcher and instructor at Harvard Medical School and at the Mauricio Gastón Institute at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, wants to teach parents of limited means how to identify and prepare healthy foods on a daily basis.
“We’re trying to teach families how to build a plate in a healthy way every time they serve a meal and how to transfer that knowledge to their children,” says Cortés, who is currently completing a research project sponsored by New Connections, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) that is designed to enhance diversity.
Cortés, a Latina, is focusing her efforts on Latino communities because they have higher rates of type 2 diabetes—often caused by obesity—than other demographic groups. And those numbers are on the rise: About one in five Latino children is overweight, a number that has doubled in the last decade, she says.
Latinos, she adds, face especially high barriers to healthy food and nutrition information due to limited English proficiency, cultural habits and high rates of poverty.
Cortés won a grant to pursue the project in July from Salud America!, a national network of researchers, community leaders, policy-makers and other stakeholders who are working together to increase the number of Latino scientists seeking environmental and policy solutions to address Latino childhood obesity. The network was established in 2007 and is funded by RWJF.
She also is completing a research project funded by the Foundation’s New Connections program that examines the impact of the 2006 Massachusetts Health Care Reform law among Latinos. Even though all of the individuals she studied now have health insurance, many still consider themselves underinsured because they cannot afford the cost of co-payments for routine visits, medications and emergency care, she found.
Study Seeks to Help Families with Limited Budgets, Food Options
In her upcoming project, Cortés will conduct an initial interview of 20 Latino families in a Latino community in Lynn, Mass., a small manufacturing and commercial city in the northeastern part of the state. At least one parent in each family has type 2 diabetes, increasing the likelihood that children in the family will also develop the disease.
Over the course of the two-year study, she will give each family $50 and ask them to purchase food for breakfast and lunch and analyze the grocery store receipts. After that, a dietician will teach the families how to purchase and prepare healthy food.
Cortés will follow up after the education intervention to see if the families in the study changed their eating habits. She also plans to create an area map of local stores with healthy food choices and engage children with photography or photovoice projects.
“The idea is to see how feasible it is to teach families with limited budgets and limited options to purchase healthier food,” she says. The goal, she adds, is to use lessons learned from the study to inform social marketing strategies to promote healthy eating in low-income Spanish-speaking families.
And that, she hopes, will someday benefit all Americans.