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Food Decisions Among Working Latino Families in California


This dissertation examines how the daily life of low-income Latinos in California’s Central Valley influences their family food decisions. The ever-increasing obesity prevalence among this population warrants research on the factors that shape food decisions in this population. Twenty-one families were recruited in collaboration with the ”Reed” Charter School, an elementary charter school committed to healthy eating. The families were followed over the course of two years.

Multiple open-ended interviews were conducted and recorded with 21 mothers and with six fathers; participant observation was conducted in 10 family homes. Participant observation was also conducted at the school and in the community during cooking classes for parents and children, during faculty development and training meetings, at parent forums, during parent teacher conferences, parent group meetings, through the wellness committee at the charter school, in the cafeteria during preparation and lunch times, at the main grocery store, at eight other food outlets including two of the carnicerias (butcher shops), at the local library, and at the local Department of Motor Vehicles. Two focus groups were also conducted to collect data. The findings of these data illustrate how the home, school and work, and the community nutrition environments interact to influence family food decisions.

As has been found in other studies, mealtimes are an important contextual factor influencing food consumption, preparation and eating behaviors. In this study I examine in depth mealtimes among Latino families living in Reed, a small town in California’s Central Valley. The guiding approaches identified in this study provide a new typology of how Latino families organize their family meals. In the home, families were found to have a distinct set of organizing principles (“guiding approaches”) for mealtimes. These included health, traditional, developmental, and path of least resistance. The guiding approaches are influenced by factors in the home including work schedules, food preferences, and the food context in schools, work, and the community.

In Reed, the most accessible food choices for children and people with limited time are cheap, calorically dense, and possess low nutritional value. Ironically, a large proportion of the nation’s produce and fruit is cultivated and harvested in the region, yet the food that is most omnipresent for residents to consume is heavily processed or calorically dense with low nutritional value. At Reed Charter School, children consume school-made lunches that emphasize fresh fruits and vegetables. Most children in Reed, however, attend schools that provide a traditional school lunch that more closely resembles fast food.

Additionally, many families have at least one member who works in a blue-collar job that keeps them away from mealtimes. Health promotion is lacking in the workplace—even though there were a few cases where healthful eating is supported and promoted. Reed Charter School, for example, promotes health among its students and employees. The health promoting effects of Reed Charter School transfer to the home environment and highlight the power of health promotion in low-income communities with limited access to healthful food options. Implications for theory, practice, and research are also provided in the study.

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