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Farmworkers' paradox: Stanford study shows field laborers not eating what they grow

In the middle of John Steinbeck country, the "salad bowl of America," most of the Mexican farmworkers who harvest the fruits and vegetables that feed the nation aren't eating enough of it themselves, according to a new study from the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Underpaid and overworked, Salinas farmworkers are eating at fast-food restaurants where the food is high-fat but low-cost. As a result, despite long hours working in the fields, the Latino farmworkers - particularly those single, young men living in the agricultural labor camps - are facing a very American problem: obesity.

"They often eat someplace that's cheap and fast with high fat content," said Marilyn Winkleby, PhD, associate professor of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who has spent years visiting farm laborers in the Salinas Valley in an ongoing partnership with the Monterey County Health Department. "Their jobs are becoming increasingly mechanized and less active."

Winkleby is the senior author of a study published in the February issue of the journal Ethnicity and Health that examines the changes in cancer-related health behaviors within the Salinas Latino population, most of whom are of Mexican origin, over the 10-year period between 1900 and 2000. The study surveyed almost 2,000 Latino women and men from both the community at large and the Latino population within 29 agricultural labor camps.

The goal was to detect changes in diet, physical activity, smoking and alcohol use as well as cancer health screenings in order to help design future public health interventions. Latinos, the country's fastest-growing minority group, suffer disproportionately from poor health exacerbated by poverty, poor education and a lack of health insurance and medical care, according to the study. Furthermore, they suffer disproportionately from some types of cancer and are 20 percent more likely to die from a malignancy than non-Latino whites.

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