Public health students examine poverty and food accessibility for Hispanics

With grocery stores disappearing from low-income communities, access to healthy and affordable food is difficult, sometimes inaccessible. And when healthy food is inaccessible, a healthy diet and good health are inaccessible, too. Low-income families are often more concerned with survival than eating healthy. Hispanic Americans are one group that finds itself greatly impacted by this problem.

Health behavior science majors Rosy Magana and Vanessa Santiago presented research findings on the topic during the annual meeting of the Society for Behavioral Medicine (SBM) in Washington, DC. Working under the guidance of faculty members Mia Papas and Elizabeth Orsega-Smith, the pair was awarded a summer service learning fellowship to complete a community-based research project. Magana and Santiago, who are both public health minors, were selected from a national pool of applicants to present their findings. The Undergraduate Research and Experiential Learning Office provided a scholarship funding so they could attend.

The pair set out with a clear goal for their research: Determine the barriers preventing Hispanic teens them from eating healthy and being active. The main research method was ‘Photo Voice,’ which gave students the opportunity to encapsulate the journey to eating healthy through the visual medium. One photo has an empty wallet as its focal point; it illustrates the barrier of how limited means prevents many Hispanics from healthy food options – a problem in ‘food deserts’ across the country. The research also uncovered unexpected barriers. For example, some parents were forcing children to eat large amounts at dinner, so that they were not later on. The girls also found that many of the students were unable to read a food label, which limited their ability to make healthy eating choices significantly.

The meeting in DC brought together current and aspiring health professionals and researchers.

“At SBM, we were able to collaborate with other students, learn from behavioral medicine researcher and gain invaluable experience presenting research,” said Santiago.

Both Magana and Santiago are both scheduled to be summer McNair Scholars with the University and will continue doing research in the health sciences. For future research, Magana will study cognitive behavior in senior centers and Santiago will examine how adverse childhood experiences effect people in adulthood.

For any student thinking about getting involved in research, Magana urges that it’s never too early.

“Look into what types of research programs are available for you and get started right away! Start fine-tuning your skills,” explained Magana. “If you want to help others through research, begin developing strong research methods as soon as possible. You can make a real impact someday.”

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