Posted on August 1, 2006

Refugees Taught How To Eat American Food

Ian Brimacombe, BBC News, July 31, 2006

In a classroom on Chicago’s north side, nutritionist Bindi Desai points at a sign of an obese man holding a hamburger with a pained expression on his face.

“This guy is overweight,” she says, explaining that this is because he eats too much fast food and drinks cola.

“And guess what happens?” she asks. “Inside his body there are lots of problems.”

At a table, a dozen or so refugees — most of them from Africa — sit and nod. Some smile and chat among themselves. They appear to get the picture.

This workshop on how to eat American food responsibly is part of an Illinois state-funded programme to improve the nutrition of refugees who are being re-settled in the land of plenty.

“First we are most concerned about whether they will understand how to eat American food,” says Shana Willis, with the non-profit refugee resettlement agency Heartland, one of the project co-ordinators.

“They did not only not understand how to eat American food, but they went immediately to the junk food and it was then that we realised, this is going to have a much more important impact than we anticipated.”

Culture shock

One of the major challenges for organisers is to change the way the refugees think about food. Many of the new arrivals suffered from malnutrition and came from places where food was scarce.

Some want to make up for a lifetime in which they were denied meat. Others gravitate towards the fizzy orange drink and crisps, believing they are a great source of vitamins.

And there is plain culture shock.

“I have been here just a few months and its very disorientating,” says one man through a translator. “Where will I find dates to break my Ramadan fasting? And, where do I get halal goat meat?”

In mid-western Chicago, the answer is not obvious.

During the workshop Ms Desai holds up a plastic prop of a piece of broccoli.

“How many vegetables do you eat in the day?” she asks the class.

One man says something quietly.

“He eats nothing!” exclaims one woman, giggling — “He eats no vegetables!”

“Oh-oh,” says Ms Desai.

Shopping tips

She asks the class how much pasta is in a serving. One man puts out his whole arm and points to his wrist.

“No,” she says, “one serving is a cupped hand.”

“If you only eat one time, maybe the arm is okay.”

Aside from presenting the workshops, Ms Desai pays home visits to help steer the refugees towards smart shopping.

“When they first come, there is a lot of hoarding,” she says. “More than they need.”

“So I tell them it won’t run out — in fact it will spoil,” she explains.

Ms Desai weeds through their cupboards, encouraging the beans, pasta and vegetables and discouraging the junk food.

But teaching shopping tips sometimes is not enough. Many of the refugees are living in Chicago’s poorer neighbourhoods and they can have difficulty finding healthy food. So Ms Desai also organises grocery store tours.

She says she sees evidence in the cupboards that her lessons are making a difference.


Organisers say the project has been so successful with African populations arriving in the United States, that it will be expanded to incorporate other refugee groups, with renewed funding from the state.

Back at the workshop, Ms Desai is wrapping up.

“Did you learn anything?” she asks.

One man raises his hand. “Eat too much food and you get fat,” he says.

“That’s right,” says Ms Desai.

Another man joins in and says: “Salt not good. Sugar not good. Oil not good. Fat not good. Blood pressure, heart problems. Yup, Yup.”

Ms Desai laughs and says: “Very good. You’re learning our slang.”