Project teaches nutrition to immigrants

It’s no secret that as more and more Latin Americans migrate to the United States, one of the toughest adjustments they face is mastering the language. The fastest growing population in the country, according to the U.S. census, Hispanics comprise about 17 percent of Florida’s population, with more than 2.7 million in the state alone.

But another less appreciated and perhaps more difficult change is the transition to a new nutrition.

Project New Life-Good Health, or Nueva Vida-Buena Salud, is a community-based program that works with USF to provide Latino immigrants with nutritional information about adapting to food sources in the United States.

“When people come here, and their food consumption patterns that they had in their original countries don’t work here, then they prefer to buy fast food, and they begin to eat a lot of fats and sugars, and (fewer) fruits and vegetables,” said Maria Claudia Duquez, health educator for Project New Life-Good Health.

The project educates groups of 30-60 students about the availability of healthier foods.

The difficulties, Duquez said, lie in the cost and accessibility of healthier foods in the United States.

“In their original countries, they have been used to another diet; when you come to the (United States), for instance, buying fruits and vegetables here is more expensive, but chicken is cheap,” Duquez said. “In some Latin American countries, chicken costs more, but fruits and veggies are very accessible. You can find them very cheap and in any place.

“(It is) cheaper and easier to buy food high in fat and sugar, and it’s harder and more expensive to buy fruit and vegetables.”

The project aims to assist low-income Latinos in contacting local and independent produce venders. Since fruits and vegetables can be more expensive in the United States as compared with their home countries, Project New Life-Good Health helps Hispanics find fruits and vegetables at a lower cost.

David Himmelgreen, project leader and a USF anthropology professor, said in a news release that the project is an effort to reach out to Latinos in a meaningful way.

“We are giving them the tools and resources to actively participate in ensuring their own well-being and the health of their families,” Himmelgreen said in the release.

Yezenia Gonzalez, program coordinator for Project New Life-Good Health, said the project does not try to impose its own view of a healthy diet, but instead tries to inform Latinos of ways that they can make their eating habits healthier and how their diet may be detrimental to their well-being.

“We actually take students (to grocery stores),” Gonzalez said, “and we say…’what do you think is nutritional or not nutritional?'”

The project’s seminars emphasize activities centered around the food pyramid and how grocery stores figure into their diet.

“If I tell you, ‘you have to eat more fruits and vegetables,’ you are going to do whatever you can do,” Duquez said. “If I ask you, ‘how is your diet?’, (we can) try to analyze your diet to see what is happening. And maybe you can begin to make some little changes.”

Gonzalez said the project shows students and families how to utilize local venders, such as those at farmer’s markets, local grocers and neighborhood produce vendors. The project found these sources to be healthy and cost effective, she said.

Duquez, a graduate assistant at USF, cited research that found low-income neighborhoods had less access to healthier foods as compared to higher income areas.

She stressed that the major concern of the project is the bad nutritional habits that result in obesity in the Latin American community in the United States.

According to the U.S. Census, 61 percent of Hispanics in the country are overweight or obese, about 8 percent more than the population at large.

“Obesity itself usually is not a big deal. You have to be very obese to have problems with your joints … for example,” Duquez said.

“The real problem is that obesity results in diabetes; it’s related to high blood pressure, to cardiac diseases. The problem with obesity is all the chronic diseases that (are caused by it.)”

The Centers for Disease Control lists diabetes as the fifth leading cause of death for Hispanics.

Hispanic-Americans are almost twice as likely to have diabetes as non-Hispanic whites, according to the National Council of La Raza, a private non-profit group that focuses on issues involving Hispanics.

Project New Life-Good Health has three seminars monthly to educate Latin American students and families about nutrition.

The first seminar is focused on the food pyramid by having a balance and healthy diet. The second seminar focuses on two main issues: how to prevent chronic diseases based on a healthy diet and how to buy food in a smarter, cheaper and healthier fashion, Duquez said.

And the third seminar is a practical activity where the coordinator takes the class to the grocery store and teaches them, on a personal basis, how to analyze nutrition labels, and in the process learn how to seek healthier food.

In addition, Project New Life-Good Health organizes events at farmer’s markets for vendors to sell fruits and vegetables at lower cost. The seminars are mostly in Spanish, but the coordinators are bilingual.

Community partners for the project include the Center for Family Health, the Hispanic Services Council, the Multicultural Resource Center, Saint Mary’s Church, San Jose Mission, and San Francisco Methodist Church. For more info on the project, contact David Himmelgreen at 974-1204.