In Immigrant Neighborhoods, Everyone Eats Healthier

People all across the world agree: One of the biggest perks of immigration is better food. But immigrants may not just make our food system more tasty, they might also make it more healthy.

Researchers analyzing data from the Los Angeles County Healthy Survey found native-born Americans who live in neighborhoods with high immigrant populations eat less fast food, get more fruits and vegetables in their diets, and have lower rates of high blood pressure and lower body-mass indices than their peers who live in areas with fewer immigrants. Even when controlling for variables such as socioeconomic status, race, and educational attainment, American-born residents of neighborhoods with high immigrant populations were found to eat more healthily and be in better health overall. The findings will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Preventive Medicine.

In a conversation with Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, study author Lu Shi of Clemson University notes that the availability of fresh, inexpensive produce in immigrant neighborhoods is likely part of the explanation: "In places with a high density of immigrants, whether it's Latino immigrants or Asian immigrants, their native-born neighbors also go shopping a lot in those ethnic grocery stores, like those Mexican supermarkets or Chinese supermarket. They buy fruits and vegetables at significantly lower prices than they would get at places like Walmart or Trader Joe's."

Let's take this opportunity to sing the praises of the neighborhood produce stand, shall we? The town I live in—Missoula, Montana—has a wonderful farmer's market. But we don't have a 7-days-a-week produce stand like the kinds other cities enjoy. When I visited a friend in Seattle recently, I was like a kid in a candy store at her local produce stand. Cheap pineapples! Actually ripe avocados! Bulk herbs! Sweet corn for 20 cents an ear! Starfruit! I'd eat like a fruit bat if that bounty was regularly available to me. And I'd probably have immigrants to thank for it.