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Bridging Nutrition and Tradition: Abriendo Caminos

Posted by Carlos Harris, National Institute of Food and Agriculture in Food and Nutrition Research and Science
Mar 22, 2016
A girl eating her lunch with other kids in background
Hispanic children are more prone to health risk than other ethnic groups and 22 percent are obese by the age of four. The NIFA-funded project Abriendo Caminos helps fight food insecurity and its associated challenges.

When preparing your meal, what’s the first thought that comes to mind? Do you have the right ingredients to create a meal that is both fulfilling and packed with enough nutrients to meet the daily requirements? But, what if the only foods that were available were unhealthy?

According to USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), 30 percent of Hispanic households with children are food insecure, meaning they have limited or uncertain access to healthy food. Many of the options that are available to these families do not meet the standard requirements for a sufficient healthy, balanced diet.

USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) has joined the fight against food insecurity by funding a University of Illinois’ program “Abriendo Caminos” (Clearing the Path) with a $926,000 Agriculture and Food Research Initiative grant.

Illinois has the fifth largest Hispanic population and make up 31 percent of state’s poverty rate. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 22 percent of Hispanic children and adolescents are obese.

“Abriendo Caminos promotes shared family meals because studies indicate that families that share meals eat more nutritiously,” said Dr. Angela Wiley, extension specialist with University of Illinois Extension. “In one extensive meta-analysis, eating at least three shared meals per week relates to a 20 percent reduction in the odds of consuming unhealthy foods and a 24 percent increase in the odds of eating healthy foods.”  The frequency of family meal time also lowers the consumption of sugary drinks and less improves the likeliness of a higher intake of fruits, grains, and vegetables.

The six-week workshop-based curriculum teaches the importance of family activities such as meal preparation, choosing healthy alternatives, exercising and other physical activity, which is usually centered on traditional folk-dancing.  These combined efforts help strengthen the link between strong family units and healthy eating, both of which are major components of fighting childhood obesity, Wiley said.

Families in the program said their local supermarkets lacked affordable options and fresh fruits and vegetables, which makes it difficult to implement healthier options during mealtime. One Abriendo Caminos program offers taste-testing of traditional foods that are lower in calories, debunking the myth that healthy means bland.

As the Hispanic population continues to grow in Illinois, programs such as Abriendo Caminos make a huge difference in the community and surrounding areas. “At University of Illinois Extension, we are training a cohort of lay health educators to provide support to the community,” Wiley said. “These volunteers can extend our health and well-being promotion goals far beyond Abriendo Caminos,” said Wiley.

Science funded by NIFA’s AFRI program is vital to meeting food, fiber, and fuel demands as the world’s population races toward a projected 9 billion by 2050, diminishing land and water resources, and increasingly variable climatic conditions.  In addition, AFRI programs help develop new technologies and a workforce that will advance our national security, energy self-sufficiency, and the health of Americans. The President’s 2017 budget request proposes to fully fund AFRI for $700 million; this amount is the full funding level authorized by Congress when it established AFRI in the 2008 Farm Bill.