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How Minnesota could help prevent childhood obesity among Latinos

A main cause behind childhood obesity in Latinos is a lack of nutrition knowledge, brought on by cultural teachings and language barriers.

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Sohayla Shahsavand
Imagine walking into a grocery store with a new recipe in hand on a mission to prepare a healthy, nutritious meal for your family. You glance down at your recipe and the first ingredient on the list is “perejil.” Perejil? What’s a perejil? Most Spanish speakers would recognize this word as parsley. This confusion is how non-English speakers feel when encountering unfamiliar words and ingredients in supermarkets and farmers markets, particularly when there’s a lack of labeling. This can be enough for a parent or caregiver to feel discouraged from trying a new, healthy alternative to what’s normally eaten at home. If what’s normally eaten at home is fast food, or is prepared using unhealthy cooking methods like frying, childhood obesity can develop over time.

Childhood obesity isn’t “just a phase” that a child is going to outgrow. A child who is obese is five times more likely to be obese as an adult. Obesity can lead to chronic diseases like asthma, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. The latest research reveals that health care costs brought on by obesity are estimated to be at $2.8 billion a year in Minnesota. The childhood obesity rate in Minnesota is at 18.5 percent, and it affects close to 13.7 million children nationwide. Minorities, such as Hispanic and black children, are disproportionately affected by obesity. Hispanic children have the highest rates of obesity at 25.8 percent nationwide in comparison to non-Hispanic black, non-Hispanic white, and non-Hispanic Asian children.

Minnesota has initiated action against childhood obesity through different methods. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) customers are provided with incentives so that they can afford to buy more fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods. The Statewide Health Improvement Partnership (SHIP), developed by the Minnesota Department of Health, focuses on creating healthier communities by increasing access to healthier foods and physical activity. Although these are great initiatives, it’s important to address the Latino population specifically because the causes behind obesity can differ among populations. SHIP even addresses this on its website, by mentioning that Minnesota still needs to eliminate disparities, particularly those experienced by people of color.

How can Minnesota do better?

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A main cause behind childhood obesity in Latinos is a lack of nutrition knowledge, brought on by cultural teachings and language barriers. To help address childhood obesity in Latino communities, it’s important for Minnesota to create and fund Nutrition and Wellness Education programs that are culturally appropriate for Latinos, with Spanish resources available. Hispanic parents participating in a 2017 research study conducted in St. Paul expressed that they felt empowered by each other’s experiences and enjoyed learning about healthy eating practices in group settings. They expressed interest in learning to cook traditional foods in a healthier manner and receiving instruction from the point of vegetable purchases because identifying them in supermarkets could be difficult. There are close to 200,000 Spanish speakers living in Minnesota. These Nutrition and Wellness Programs could offer additional resources, including assistance in Spanish when signing up for SNAP, which can be a big financial help since one in four Minnesotan Latinos is living in poverty. These programs’ spaces can also provide an indoor place for children to exercise in, as exercising outdoors in the winter can be difficult in a state like Minnesota.

Funding Nutrition and Wellness Education Programs targeting Latino families would decrease rates of childhood obesity and subsequently reduce health care costs in Minnesota. By equipping Latino parents and caregivers with the nutrition knowledge they seek, what was once a daunting task of scavenging for vegetables can become a worry-free and possibly even an enjoyable task.

Sohayla Shahsavand is a master of public health student at the University of Minnesota.


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