OSU extension programs help Hispanic families stay healthy

May 20, 2005

PORTLAND - Hispanic immigrants often eat less nutritiously, once they leave their traditional diets and lifestyles in their native homelands and come to the United States – especially as children discover fast food alternatives at school and parents may begin working long hours.

Concerned about problems associated with a loss of traditional diets – including food safety, rampant diabetes and rising childhood obesity – Oregon State University Extension Service staff members in the Portland metropolitan counties have designed programs to help Hispanic families become healthier and more self-sufficient here in Oregon.

“One of the goals of our Foods and Nutrition Programs is to help limited-income Hispanic families not only maintain traditional diet, but also improve it,” said Lynn Steele, OSU Extension Family and Community Development Program faculty member, who works in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties.

In her work, Steele has watched the diets of a number of families from Mexico, Guatemala and other Latin American countries turn from the more nutritional and traditional rice, beans and tortillas to American-style convenience and fast food.

“I can tell how long a family has been here by if they are eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches," Steele said. "It’s a tell-tale sign. The longer families are here, the more Americanized their diets become.”

Steele works closely with both public and private sector agencies serving Hispanic families, including local public health departments and Head Start. Families receive a series of classes out of individual homes or out of community centers, health centers and Head Start facilities.

“OSU Extension is one of only a few organizations that do hands-on nutrition education in Oregon,” said Steele. “We form personal relationships through our hands on-approach and develop trust.

“Many immigrants served in the programs never had refrigerators in their homes before coming to the United States, and they don’t know how to safely cook and store perishable foods,” said Steele. “One of the major goals of the Foods and Nutrition Program focuses on food safety.”

For example, in 1997, almost 100 people got sick in Yakima, Wash., by eating queso fresco, a Hispanic cheese made with unpasteurized milk, traditionally prepared in homes throughout Latin America. The queso fresco that caused the illness outbreak was contaminated with Salmonella.

OSU Extension food and nutrition and dairy specialists are working to help Hispanic families use a safe method of making a traditional cheese that could be easily taught to be made at home, incorporating food safety information into their presentations on how to make queso fresco. So far, almost 300 people have been reached in Oregon.

Making safe homemade cheese is just one of the topics covered in Extension Foods and Nutrition programs in the metro area.

Given recent reports of increased diabetes and high cholesterol, OSU Extension Foods and Nutrition program staff also teach about the dietary guidelines. Classes taught are devoted to basic nutrition, which includes low-fat cooking, reducing dietary sugar, child nutrition and making healthy snacks for kids. In just six to 12 sessions, Steele reports significant changes in her pupils’ dietary behavior.

Steele said that classes also help families understand the importance of eating a variety of fruits and vegetables every day.

“Many recent immigrants aren’t used to all the seasonal foods we have,” she said.

Steele and her colleagues highlight the economic value of using fruits and vegetables in season, as well as healthy alternatives when fresh produce becomes more expensive in the winter.

Shopping in supermarkets is a challenge to many new arrivals. OSU Extension helps shoppers learn how to get the most for their money by learning to compare unit price and how to use coupons. And at Thanksgiving, classes help Hispanic families safely prepare a turkey, a new American tradition for which many are willing and anxious to try.

Most of the program participants are strictly Spanish speakers, a challenge overcome by the multilingual staff.

“Lynn was one of the first bilingual faculty we hired, which helped her gain entry into the community and gain credibility,” said Carolyn Raab, OSU Extension food and nutrition specialist.

There are many programs targeting Hispanics offered statewide by the OSU Extension Service. Family and Community Development faculty and staff are actively engaged in 28 of Oregon’s 36 counties. For more information on local food and nutrition classes, contact local county offices of the OSU Extension Service or visit them online at http://extension.oregonstate.edu/locations.php

More information on Extension’s Family and Community Development program is available at: http://extension.oregonstate.edu/fcd/

Author: Virginia Gewin, Carol Savonen
Source: Lynn Steele