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NMSU researchers searching for ways to encourage Mexican American families to eat healthier

Researchers at New Mexico State University are trying to find ways to encourage Mexican American families to eat more fruits and vegetables. The 18-month project is funded by the Paso del Norte Health Foundation in hopes of promoting healthy eating and active living among children, youth and families.

Photo of Collin Payne holding a plant of unhealthy food
Collin Payne is working with other researchers at New Mexico State University to find ways to encourage Mexican American families to eat more fruits and vegetables. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

"Increased consumption of fruit and vegetable has been strongly associated with reductions in Mexican American health disparities, such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes," said Collin Payne, an assistant marketing professor in NMSU's College of Business and the study's principal investigator. "To encourage greater fresh fruit and vegetable consumption, we target an overlooked, but crucial, context for health interventions?namely, the grocery store where 80 percent of food expenditures occur."

"The Paso del Norte Health Foundation knows that modifying policy and the food environment, including how fruit and vegetables are sold, is critical for helping families make the healthy choice the default choice," said Michael Kelly, senior program officer for the Paso del Norte Health Foundation, the largest private foundation on the U.S./Mexico border. Its mission is to promote health and prevent disease in the region through leadership in health education, research and advocacy.

Over the course of the study, Payne will partner with NMSU professors Mihai Niculescu of the College of Business and Rebecca Palacios of the College of Health and Social Services, as well as Cornell University professor David Just, to assess the layout of grocery stores in the region. The group will then analyze the purchasing and consumption patterns of Mexican American families and use sustainable marketing-oriented environmental changes to increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables. These environmental changes would include the use of in-store, "socially driven" messages, such as "Eighty-two percent of shoppers in this store buy tomatoes for a healthy heart." Among the study's objectives are to increase fruit and vegetable purchases by 10 percent over a six month period.

"There are assumptions that health interventions result in decreased grocery store revenue, or that only expensive environmental changes to grocery stores can result in healthier changes. This project will work to overcome those barriers," Payne said. "In fact, this proposal suggests win-win ways that retailers and consumers can benefit from healthier food choices."

The study will include a report on barriers to healthy purchasing behaviors in grocery stores, a report on fruit and vegetable consumption patterns once shoppers make it home, and an analysis of how effective certain health interventions are, including the use of socially driven messages and other marketing tools.

Once the study is complete, Payne's group plans to work with the Paso del Norte Health Foundation to disseminate their findings, including public policy recommendations to encourage greater governmental and commercial cooperation in finding ways to improve healthier eating.