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Editor’s Note: This story appears in the latest E-newsletter of Salud America!, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) network to prevent obesity among Latino kids, directed by the Institute for Health Promotion Research at The UT Health Science Center at San Antonio.
Laura Kettel Khan rarely stepped foot outside Arizona as a child.
She raised horses and enjoyed church-based activities there. Her family didn’t travel much. She even went to study at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Her life changed when she joined the Peace Corps in the 1980s.
Kettel Khan—despite not knowing Spanish at the time—was assigned to nutrition issues in Latin America. She found herself in a 300-person Honduran village, helping raise animals and building chicken coops at the village school, thus adding eggs to the daily diets of impoverished children.
She worked hard with the community leadership to build a gravity-based piping system to bring potable water to every home.
“I got a letter, some 20 years later, that the piping system and coops were still providing safe water and eggs to the community,” she said. “It was one of the proudest days of my life.”
“My experience in Honduras—and later experiences in Egypt, U.S./Mexico border projects in community medicine, and the White Mountain Apache Indian Tribe—have given me unusual sensitivity to the role of culture in nutrition and health.”
During her postdoctoral work at the Division of Nutritional Sciences of Cornell University, she was awarded a National Research Service Award from the National Institutes of Health in 1993 to study the correlates of overweight and obesity in U.S. Hispanics. In 1996, she received an NIH FIRST award to study overweight in Mexican-American children. Recently she authored an influential 2009 CDC paper, “Recommended Community Strategies and Measurements to Prevent Obesity in the United States.”
Today, Kettel Khan is applying that knowledge of nutrition and culture as senior health scientist for policy and partnerships at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Her primary interest remains the global problem of overweight/obesity and chronic disease, particularly as it relates to policy systems, and environmental change in communities. Her current passion is working to build knowledge of practice-based evidence for obesity prevention.
She also is an advisor for Salud America!
“Latino childhood obesity remains a critical issue for the health of our nation and other nations,” she said. “We must take culture into account when striving to change our environments.”