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Creating healthy food environments for Latino kids

NFSN Staff Thursday, January 21, 2016
Guest post by Lisa Ellis-Veraza, Salud America! 

Salud America! The RWJF Reach Network to Prevent Obesity Among Latino Children has worked since 2007 to increase evidence and policy recommendations to prevent Latino childhood obesity. The 50,000 member network includes researchers, community leaders, policymakers, and other stakeholders working together to increase advocacy support and the number of Latino advocates seeking policy solutions to combat childhood obesity. See Salud America!’s research here.

High school students in El Paso aren’t only learning how to grow fruits and vegetables, they’re learning how to prepare and sell them, too. (Photo credit: Ana Suffle)

Healthy school food is a key component of growing a healthier next generation. But offering nutritious food in schools is particularly vital for our growing population of Latino students, who face higher risks of obesity and diabetes than their peers. 

According to a new research review from Salud America! The RWJF Reach Network to Prevent Obesity Among Latino Children, Latino students are more frequently exposed to unhealthy foods in their school and neighborhood environments than their white peers. The review indicates when a school’s proximity to fast food increased, so did Latino students’ body mass index. It also suggests that Latino-majority schools tend to have weaker policies regarding school snacks and drinks, and may be less likely to implement nutritional guidelines.

This situation has dire health consequences, as it is expected 30 percent of the U.S. student population will be Latino by 2030. If obesity remains unchecked, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one of every two Latino children born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes in their lifetime. So how can we ensure healthier food environments for Latino kids?

Let’s consider school food! Most students, including Latinos, consume up to half of their daily calories at schools, and the nutritional value of the foods and beverages available at schools play a major role in influencing students’ diets and weight. School policies that reduce access to sugary snacks and drinks are likely to reduce Latino students’ consumption of unhealthy items during the school day, and positively impact student weight trends.

Michaelie Love advocated for a healthy breakfast cart at her high school in Texas.

There are many things that can be done to help drive wellness policy and system changes like these at schools. For example, student Praxina Guerra and her mentor, Cathy Lopez, advocated for hydration stations across their school’s campus in order to encourage students to drink more water and less sugary beverages. In Texas, student Michaelie Love worked in her school to offer up a healthy breakfast cart for fresh food options in the morning, and Cecil Whisenton brought healthier vending machines to her Latino-majority high school.

Farm to school initiatives can also create healthy food environments. For example, see how high school student Elena Dennis's summer school cooking camp in California brought students to local farms and taught them how to make healthy meals from scratch. Programs like Elena’s “Camp Cauliflower” are teaching kids how to grow, cook and enjoy nutritious food, planting the seeds of healthy habits for a lifetime. 

We also know students are more likely to consume fruits and vegetables when schools offer opportunities to learn in school gardens. Watch how Bowie High School’s garden in largely Latino El Paso, Texas, helped the whole community learn about healthy foods in a culturally relevant way. Or, see how teacher Lonnie Schlerandi started a school garden in Austin, Texas, that inspired students to get involved in growing produce and distributing it to school and community members.

So how can you get involved in helping create healthy food environments for Latino children? Salud America! has created an online haven for healthy change where you can become a Salud Leader and share your story, learn what changes are happening in your area, be inspired by educational videos, access research and policy briefs, sign petitions and more. 

Best of all, all of our content can be shared using social media – a primary way Latinos access health information. Once you register to be a part our network, you can access free community health reports, maps, videos, policy updates and more to drive change for Latino childhood obesity prevention. Join us, and together we can help unite the Latino voice for childhood health! 

Earlier this week, we joined Salud America for a tweetchat about ways to create healthier school environment for Latino kids. See a full recap of the conversation here

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