Obesity is a serious health problem among Latino men and women who
have immigrated to the United States. The age-adjusted prevalence of
obesity among adult Latinos in the United States is estimated at 28.9 percent
for men and 39.7 percent for women. As possible evidence of the impact of
U.S. lifestyle and environmental factors, Mexican-American women in the
United States have almost twice the obesity rates found in Mexico and other
Latin American countries. A growing body of evidence links neighborhood
environmental factors with risk for obesity and poor diet quality. For
example, poorer and predominantly minority areas house significantly more
small grocery stores, which are far less likely to carry healthy food selections
than those in a predominantly White neighborhood. In addition, poor
neighborhoods tend to have fewer produce markets and natural food stores.
Latino immigrants to the Southeastern United States represent one of the
largest and most rapidly growing new immigrant populations. Several factors
have driven this significant inmigration, particularly from Mexico: affordable
housing, employment opportunities, and family reunification. Changes
in the new immigrant demographic profile have been so rapid that few institutions
are equipped to adequately serve this population. As a consequence,
other forms of support have developed to meet the needs of the Latino
immigrant community. In the Southeast, small Latino-oriented grocery
stores (“tiendas”) have become an important source of food and other products
and services for new immigrant Latinos. The growth in the number of
tiendas in these counties suggests that they likely influence dietary behavior.
This study represents a three-county examination of the presence of
tiendas in the community and their influence on Latino store
customers’ food purchasing behaviors. From several data sources, 43
tiendas were identified. Data were collected from 37 of these tiendas that
were in operation, including unobtrusive store observations, indepth interviews
with tienda managers, and interviews with tienda customers.
Data from the store observations revealed that the tiendas varied on the
number of food-related services offered. For example, 19 percent of the
tiendas had an onsite butcher and offered prepared foods to consume onsite
or to take home. Sixteen percent of the tiendas had a candy vending machine
available, with tiendas located in the rural community having significantly
more candy vending machines than tiendas in the suburban and urban communities.
In terms of availability of healthy and unhealthy food products, 63
percent and 68 percent of the tiendas carried a limited supply of fruits and
vegetables, respectively, 5 percent of stores sold a lower fat variety of cheese,
and 14 percent offered a lower fat variety of milk. Unhealthy food products
were also observed, including Mexican candy (all stores), American candy
(60 percent), and regular soda (all stores). In terms of location, the majority of
the tiendas were located in a residential neighborhood (74 percent), in a strip
mall (60 percent), near other convenience stores (51 percent), or near a sit-down
restaurant (43 percent) or fast food restaurant (38 percent). Significantly
more tiendas were located near a fast food restaurant in the urban community
compared with rural and suburban communities.
Indepth interviews with the managers revealed that 57 percent of the
managers were also the owners and a majority (63 percent) lived in the
community where the tienda was located. The average number of years the
tiendas were in operation and managed by the respondents was 3 years.
Most of the tienda managers made purchasing decisions alone or in collaboration
with the owner. Merchandise and food products were obtained from
local vendors catering to these tiendas, including a number of food distributors
from Mexico. Stocking decisions were made based on a visual inspection
of shelf inventory, seasonality, and customer requests.
Intercept interviews with 114 adult Latino customers found that the
customers visited these tiendas on average twice a week for commonly
consumed foods and 85 percent lived in the same community as the
tienda. The primary motivators for visiting the tienda were quality of service
(68 percent), familiarity of products (62 percent), and proximity to home or
work (57 percent). The average amount of money spent on groceries was $120
per week. Food prepared at home was the primary source of dietary intake
for breakfast (84 percent), lunch (75 percent), and dinner (94 percent).
Store customers were asked about the types of food products they most
commonly purchased at the tienda where the interview was completed.
Tortillas, meat, soda, and vegetables were the most common products
purchased by the customers, followed by dairy products, fruits, and breads.
We examined whether two characteristics of the tienda was associated with
customers’ purchasing of fruits and vegetables: location of tienda and availability
of fruits and vegetables. We found no association between location of
the tienda and purchasing of fruits and vegetables. However, we found a
strong association between reported purchasing of fruits and vegetable and
availability of fruits and vegetables in the tienda.
This study provides a first glimpse at a potential source of influence on
Latino’s dietary intake at a critical period during the acculturation process.
We observed that tiendas offer a variety of products and services that are in
demand by new immigrant communities. However, tiendas also influence
customers’ food purchasing behavior by making healthy and unhealthy food
products more accessible. Tiendas serve an important role in the community—
as a source of information about community resources, as a place to meet
and socialize with similar others, and as a place to purchase commonly