07/25/2011 11:33 am ET | Updated Sep 24, 2011

Comer Bien : The Challenges of Nourishing Latino Children and Families

Latino families, like millions of others across the United States, do their best to put nutritious food on their tables every day, but the healthiest foods are too often unaffordable or inaccessible -- and the current economic climate has only added to family budgetary challenges. Many Americans struggle to buy enough food for everyone in the family, and sometimes that means choosing cheaper food that is filling, but less nutritious. The Latino community is especially vulnerable to these issues, and a quick look at the numbers proves it. Forty percent of Latino children are considered to be overweight or obese, giving Latinos the dubious distinction of having some of the highest obesity rates in the nation. Ironically, Latinos are also the most likely to live with food insecurity, and they make up nearly 40% of children who go hungry. Child hunger and obesity endanger children's physical, mental, and emotional health and can have lifelong effects. Therefore, we as a nation must understand Latino nutritional experiences in order to craft meaningful solutions for improving the health and well-being of Latino children and families.

The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) fosters this mission through a video and storybanking project that features parents and caregivers from families served by our affiliates in Texas, Idaho, and Washington, DC. These men and women describe their experiences and challenges in providing their children with wholesome and nutritious food. The video and storybanking project culminated in the film and story booklet Comer bien -- "Eating Well" -- which NCLR launched yesterday at our Annual Conference.

In our discussions with these community members, we identified the overarching theme of family. Family is paramount for Latinos and nurturing the well-being of their children is the highest priority for parents and grandparents. The concept of comer bien encompasses family togetherness and a shared cultural belief that good nourishment means more than just the nutritional content of food.

We discovered through the interviews that many factors determine a family's ability to provide children with healthy food. Limited access to practicable nutrition education was certainly one factor, but our storytellers also described other problems, such as income and job insecurity, limited access to healthy foods, lack of transportation, inadequate access to health care, and barriers to federal nutrition assistance programs. All of these issues can stand in the way of implementing sound nutrition information, especially since multiple factors are usually in play.

Latino parents face some of the toughest barriers to accessing nutritious food, but we found that in spite of these challenges our storytellers are highly determined to give their children all that they need to grow up healthy and have better opportunities. Such motivation is a powerful tool, especially when coupled with nutrition assistance programs, budget-friendly education about wholesome food, and access to health care. Supportive services, made readily available, will encourage these families to make positive changes in the foods they feed to their children.

Comer bien
is a snapshot of the lives of Latino families and their relationship with food, and we are excited to add these resources to the national conversation about how Latinos and other people of color access healthy food. It is an important way for us to start facing these problems in the long term.