Dr. David A. Himmelgreen, Dr. Nancy Romero Daza, and Ms. Noemi Danao, along with graduate students from the University of South Florida and staff from the Monteverde Institute, will undertake research on the impact that the ongoing transition from farming to tourism is having on the food habits and nutritional health of rural Costa Rican households. As part of the new global economy, tourism provides for new economic opportunities and the development of infrastructure and services. Yet with a de-emphasis on local food production, there is an increased reliance on imported foods which are more expensive and include processed energy-dense foods that are high in fat and refined sugar.

The primary research question is whether food consumption and nutritional health vary depending on the degree to which rural households rely on tourism for income. The research will take place in two communities in the Monteverde region, where dairy farming and coffee farming are being replaced by eco-tourism. Two hundred households will be included. A quantitative and qualitative study will be conducted to examine the ways in which households combine economic strategies and the impact that such activities have on dietary behaviors and nutritional health. Additionally, a market assessment and interviews with food suppliers will be done to examine the seasonal availability and cost of fresh produce and staple foods such as rice, beans, and dairy products). Researchers will employ surveys, focus groups, in-depth interviews, measures of food security, food frequency questionnaires, and physiological measures of nutritional health using anthropometry and bioelectrical impedance analysis.

This study contributes an anthropological perspective in which the bio-cultural dimensions of health are examined. Using mixed methods, it will identify the biological consequences that globalization has on rural populations. The research will contribute understanding how social and cultural processes shape food-related behaviors. The research also will provide training opportunities for graduate students.

Project Report

In accordance with NSF guidelines, this brief report summarizes the main contributions that have stemmed from the unfolding of this research project. The main tasks of this project were to advance the state of scientific knowledge concerning food insecurity and nutritional health of human populations. Being an anthropological project, this research approached the study of this topic by relying on a case study of the Monteverde Zone in Costa Rica. Project staff (including the PI's) have a long history of carrying out research in the Monteverde Zone. Originally stemming from a global health field school initiativie, the PI's became increasingly interested in the factors that were negatively affecting people in the Monteverde Zone access to food, their food preferances, physicial activity patterns, and ultimately, their nutritional health outcomes. Given that many populations of the third world have been experiencing declines in their nutritional health (exhibiting, for instance, high rates of cardiovascular diseases and overweight and obesity), the PI's decided to examine how the transition from a dairy-farming and subsistence agriculture economy towards one heavily based on eco-tourism might impact people's perception of food, their choices, access, ultimately impacting their overall health. In order to address these questions, the project staff designed a mixed-methods, ethnographic approach to study these dynamics in the Monteverde Zone. Two hundred households have been tracked for three years, providing the staff with rich data concerning the decision making processes, the obtacles and incentives concerning food acquisition and preparation, and overall life patterns that may affect the study populations' nutritional health. After three years of data collection and analysis, various assertions can be made with confidance concerning the food environment in Monteverde. First, there are high rates of overweight and obesity (the sample mean BMI is 28) and high rates of food insecurity (over 50% of households exhibiting some for of food insecurity). Food insecurity and elevated BMI values have been found to be significantly related to being involved in the tourist sector for employment, to not possesing certain household items (such as coffee makers, microwaves and cars), to increased reported illness symptoms, and to more frequent shopping for a household's basic groceries. Data from the project suggest that time, an increased consumerist penchant, and overall increased complexity in the amount of things that "need" to be purchased present strong obstacles for more local food production, thus reproducing a situation in which people rely on market-based strategies to acquire the food they consume. As a general backdrop to these processes, there is declining interest and knowledge in agricultural production in the zone, as younger generations envision a life very much steeped in "modern" and consumer lifestyles. The seasonal and longitudinal approach that this project has taken has allowed for an on-the-ground evaluation of fluctuating tourist presence, highlighting the dire situation which many people face when tourist presence in the area declines as it did these past two years. Through data generated by this project it has become clear that the strong dependence on tourism as income generation strategies, coupled with the shifts in ideologies, lifestyle goals and projects results in a situation in which the population of the area are at great risk for food insecurity, cardiovascular diseases, and general economic depression.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Deborah Winslow
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University of South Florida
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