This thesis is about food practices and change among Mexican migrants living in West Queens, New York City. Public health research suggests that Mexican migration to the US has a negative impact on food practices, with diets being less nutritious over a migrant’s stay in the United States and obesity being more common among longer-term than more recently-arrived individuals. Through ethnography, I explore how migration shapes food practices and examine the nuanced process of nutritional change that is often obscured in large-scale epidemiological studies. Food practices are important not just because they shape vulnerabilities to chronic diseases but also because they serve as prisms by which to examine migrants’ lives, pressures and aspirations. The three aims of this ethnography are to explore the food practices that Mexicans engage in after migration; to examine the social, temporal and political-economic contexts shaping food practices and change; and to describe how migrants themselves makes sense of nutritional change. I explore these themes using the approach of structural vulnerability, which views health practices and outcomes as influenced by social structures, relationships and inequalities. In so doing, I provide a critique of the public health literature’s use of the concept of acculturation to explain food practices, which largely obscures the role played by structural contexts and constraints. Through participant observation, conversations and interviews with Mexican migrants in West Queens, NYC, I have identified three contexts shaping food practices and change after migration: household dynamics and labour division; time constraints and work schedules; and the ‘food environment’, referring to the availability of food items and weight loss products. Gender dynamics, documentation status and class modified the way in which these contexts were perceived and negotiated by informants, which had further consequences on food practices. In these settings, informants were often encouraged to consume high-energy foods and large portions, to replace meals with snacks, to eat prepared or convenience foods, and to experiment with weight loss products. To rationalize nutritional change and body size disparities, informants employed multiple discourses. Some discourses emphasized the role of structural contexts and constraints related to time, money and documentation status, while others emphasized the role played by cultural beliefs, habits and acculturation. An ethnographic approach informed by structural vulnerability serves to articulate how the everyday lives and social contexts in which Mexican migrants are embedded, shape experiences of nutritional change. This thesis exposes a disconnect between the way in which the public health literature conceptualizes nutritional change and how it is lived ‘on the ground’.
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