Open Access Open Badges Research

Cultural repertoires and food-related household technology within colonia households under conditions of material hardship

Wesley R Dean1*, Joseph R Sharkey1, Cassandra M Johnson123 and Julie St John4

Author Affiliations

1 Program for Research in Nutrition and Health Disparities, Department of Health Promotion & Community Health Sciences, School of Rural Public Health, TAMU 1266, College Station, TX, USA, 77843

2 Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1700 Martin Luther King Blvd, CB# 7426, Chapel Hill, NC, 27599-7426, USA

3 Department of Nutrition, Gillings School of Global Public Health, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 260 Rosenau Hall, CB #7461, Chapel Hill, NC, 27599-7461, USA

4 Center for Community Health Development, Texas A&M School of Rural Public Health, TAMU 1266, College Station, TX, USA, 77843

For all author emails, please log on.

International Journal for Equity in Health 2012, 11:25  doi:10.1186/1475-9276-11-25

Published: 15 May 2012



Mexican-origin women in the U.S. living in colonias (new-destination Mexican-immigrant communities) along the Texas-Mexico border suffer from a high incidence of food insecurity and diet-related chronic disease. Understanding environmental factors that influence food-related behaviors among this population will be important to improving the well-being of colonia households. This article focuses on cultural repertoires that enable food choice and the everyday uses of technology in food-related practice by Mexican-immigrant women in colonia households under conditions of material hardship. Findings are presented within a conceptual framework informed by concepts drawn from sociological accounts of technology, food choice, culture, and material hardship.


Field notes were provided by teams of promotora-researchers (indigenous community health workers) and public-health professionals trained as participant observers. They conducted observations on three separate occasions (two half-days during the week and one weekend day) within eight family residences located in colonias near the towns of Alton and San Carlos, Texas. English observations were coded inductively and early observations stressed the importance of technology and material hardship in food-related behavior. These observations were further explored and coded using the qualitative data package Atlas.ti.


Technology included kitchen implements used in standard and adapted configurations and household infrastructure. Residents employed tools across a range of food-related activities identified as forms of food acquisition, storage, preparation, serving, feeding and eating, cleaning, and waste processing. Material hardships included the quality, quantity, acceptability, and uncertainty dimensions of food insecurity, and insufficient consumption of housing, clothing and medical care. Cultural repertoires for coping with material hardship included reliance on inexpensive staple foods and dishes, and conventional and innovative technological practices. These repertoires expressed the creative agency of women colonia residents. Food-related practices were constrained by climate, animal and insect pests, women’s gender roles, limitations in neighborhood and household infrastructure, and economic and material resources.


This research points to the importance of socioeconomic and structural factors such as gender roles, economic poverty and material hardship as constraints on food choice and food-related behavior. In turn, it emphasizes the innovative practices employed by women residents of colonias to prepare meals under these constraints.