Nutrition experts learn value of culinary customs
On the Food Guide Pyramid, the universal map to healthy eating, a bowl of rice is pictured with chopsticks in it.
At first glance, the image looks like an attempt to be culturally sensitive. After all, the drawing acknowledges that rice is a staple of the Asian-American diet and a healthy food for people of any culture.
"But every time I look at the Food Guide Pyramid, I cringe a little," says Joanne P. Ikeda, an extension nutrition specialist from California. Why? In most Asian- American cultures, leaving chopsticks sitting in a bowl of rice is considered bad manners, akin to putting your feet on the table. "The drawing demonstrates ignorance of Asian-American food customs," she says.
For a dietitian or nutritionist who works with culturally diverse audiences, ignorance of such customs could make educating clients that much more difficult. Or worse, the educator could offend the client. So Ikeda developed a program that teaches nutritionists how to work with audiences of different nationalities. Cynthia Fauser, an extension nutrition specialist in St. Louis, invited Ikeda to bring the program to St. Louis.
While Missouri might not be as rich in cultural diversity as California, the state is home to a growing number of people whose culinary customs differ from traditional Midwesterners. That holds especially true for St. Louis, a city that is experiencing an influx of immigrants.
According to research conducted by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, some 14,000 Mexican, 7,500 Chinese and 5,000 German refugees are among recent immigrants who call the city home. Other nationalities that number in the thousands include: Koreans, Vietnamese, Indians, residents of the former U.S.S.R., Filipinos, Italians and Palestinians.
"We certainly work with people from different nationalities, but the concept of being sensitive to their culinary culture was something nutrition educators hadn't had the opportunity to think about," says Fauser.
The conference, which drew some 150 social workers, public health nurses, dietitians and school nurses, addressed a number of challenges educators may face, from communicating through an interpreter to understanding cultural influences on mother-child relationships.
Participants also learned how to conduct home visits with non-English speaking clients and the specific culinary customs of Mexican, Asian and Islamic immigrants.
State nutrition specialist Melinda Hemmelgarn says extension is actively working with the Missouri Department of Health and other leading health associations statewide to develop consistent health-affirming messages.
"It is very important," she says, "that we understand how best to communicate nutrition and health-promotion behaviors to our ethnically diverse population. The Foodways conference in St. Louis helped heighten awareness of the importance of communication styles in eliciting positive health and lifestyle behavior changes."
Ikeda urges nutritionists to shy away from the one-size-fits-all approach to healthy eating, which is targeted to the dominant, mainstream culture. On the contrary, she feels nutrition educators may even learn something from other cultures.
Beyond merely knowing what foods different cultures prefer, Ikeda urges educators to identify the values that motivate specific eating behaviors. When nutrition educators understand why, not just what, people eat, they will better reach culturally diverse audiences.
For example, Ikeda points out that baby bottle tooth decay is rampant among Southwestern Native American infants and toddlers. When she learned this, she thought the obvious: Why are adults in this culture giving soda to young children? She later learned the value behind the behavior: sharing.
The southwestern climate is hot and cold drinking water isn't always readily available, so adults quench their thirst with soft drinks. In the Native American culture, it would be unthinkable not to share the soda with everyone around, including infants and toddlers.
A culturally sensitive nutritionist wouldn't suggest the Native Americans not share beverages with the children, but they can suggest drinks that would be healthier to share. Juice, for example.
Because this approach would respect the culture's values, the odds for success are higher, says Ikeda.