The Complex Intersections of Food, Health, and History in Hispanic Caribbean Communities

Nutrition scholar Melissa Fuster is debunking food stereotypes within Hispanic Caribbean communities. In the process, she offers a thoughtful approach to addressing the group’s diet-related health inequities

For Melissa Fuster, our relationship with eating isn’t as simple as sitting down for a meal.

An associate professor of social, behavioral, and population sciences at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, Fuster explores that complexity in looking at the role food plays in Hispanic Caribbean communities in New York City and across the country.

It’s a passion that’s been evolving since her time at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, from which she earned her Ph.D. in 2013.

“We don't tend to really look at historical and resulting structural factors in nutrition. But the way [people in these communities] spoke about food,” said Fuster of her research on the ground, “it became very clear it was influenced by past experience and historical events.”

Melissa Fuster's book

Fuster is determined to provide this broader context. Inspired by her discoveries and her own lived experience migrating from Puerto Rico to Miami at age 21, she released her book, Caribeños at the Table: How Migration, Health, and Race intersect in New York City, last year.

While studies show that Hispanic Caribbeans across the U.S. are at greater risk of developing diet-related diseases (including obesity and diabetes) than non-Hispanic whites, Caribeños at the Table steps back to look at the bigger picture. It analyzes social and environmental factors that contribute to these health inequities, like loss of land, proximity to violence and other political conflict as well as institutional barriers to resources including job opportunities, education, and high-quality healthcare.

Nutrition: An Intersectional Approach

“If you don't have access to education, if you're constantly experiencing discrimination—these aspects can definitely influence diet,” said Fuster, whose work focuses heavily on New York, where the country’s largest population of Hispanic Caribbean communities reside. “I look at the history of these communities—how we got to this place and how that history influences our experiences.”

Fuster urges nutritionists, dietitians, and other healthcare professionals to understand that the way people across the Latin American diaspora are viewed should not be monolithic, nor should their relationship to food—and their overall diets—be.

“We have to look at people at the intersection of... structural factors. Our class, race, gender, age—those are things that interact with each other and where we're from. It all shapes our views and practices around food.” 

Melissa Fuster, NG13

“I think culture is definitely important, but I try to have a more nuanced view of what culture is,” said Fuster. “I was born and raised in an urban setting. There are so many different layers that influenced me and how I view Puerto Rican [food culture]. For me, it's different from somebody in Puerto Rico right now, or somebody that grew up in New York or Boston, or a different part of the country.”

She added, “That's something that I try to do in the book: to explain that we're more than just where we're from. We have to look at people at the intersection of what I refer to in the book as structural factors. Our class, race, gender, age—those are things that interact with each other and where we're from. It all shapes our views and practices around food.”

Debunking Stereotypes

It’s also common for dietitians to link high rates of diet-related diseases to Hispanic Caribbean cuisine, said Fuster, and to suggest that traditional cooking in these cultures includes fatty meat, starchy roots, and a lot of frying.

“When we think about ethnic foods, or immigrant diets, we think of these stereotypes,” said Fuster. “Like ‘You're Puerto Rican, so you only eat rice and beans’... things like that. What I try to do is show that the Caribbean is a melting pot. There are, unfortunately, some erroneous ideas about what we eat.”

In her book, Fuster opens up about her own acts of stereotyping, including anecdotes like a conversation she once had with a Puerto Rican woman about the motivations that led to her changed diet.

“She mentioned that she had been eating more salads—specifically ones that went beyond the usual salad that you might see in Puerto Rico, the iceberg lettuce, tomato, and potentially avocado or onions,” said Fuster.

“My first thought was, ‘Oh, she must have had a chat with a dietician; somebody must have told her she had to change what she was eating,” said Fuster. The real reason? “It was because she got a pet iguana!” added Fuster, with a laugh. “She had to research what iguanas ate, realizing that our traditional iceberg lettuce was mostly water, prompting her to switch to more nutritious greens.” This experience led her to reflect on the reality of multiple (and unpredictable) drivers for dietary change and her own stereotypes about diets in the community.

The Role of Restaurants

As part of her response to these issues she brings to light in her book, Fuster founded The Latin American Restaurants in Action (LARiA) Project, an initiative that collaborates with Hispanic Caribbean and Latin American restaurants to develop strategies aimed at boosting cultural visibility and improving unity, health, and trust among Latin American communities through the lens of food. It’s funded by the National Institutes of Health.

“Something we forget is that we need to make a healthy choice a desirable one,” said Fuster. “I see restaurants as a vehicle for that. I also see that, historically, restaurants and food in general, are a vehicle for new immigrants to enter the economy.”

LARiA’s goal is to work directly with restaurants (it is already partnering with two) to curate dining options that offer both comfort and education to Latin American patrons.

“Something that we did with a Puerto Rican restaurant in New York City was that the chef developed a side dish with cabbage, peppers, squash—vegetables that [Puerto Ricans] are familiar with, but we might not eat it this way,” said Fuster. “But the chef seasoned it with the same flavors we’re accustomed to. People might go out and say, ‘I won't go to that restaurant because they won't prepare the food like my mom or my grandma’ or ‘I'm not going to spend money eating out at a place when I can make the food at home,’ but the idea here is to inspire some creativity in home cooking.”

Fuster’s plan is to grow the network of chefs and restaurants with which LARiA partners and expand the work to address how policies and regulations can help facilitate changes, to help inspire people in Latinx communities to consider healthy and tasty cooking habits, and, above all, to embrace their multifaceted identity. 

“My aim is to change social and cultural norms about the deliciousness of healthy food,” said Fuster.

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