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Struggling to Stomach America’s Cuisine

U.S. diet take its toll on refugees


Dadiri Nuro was raised in a place where his family and friends ate what they grew. Their food started out as seeds in the palm of their hands, which were then planted into rich Somali soil. They nurtured their gardens, watched their food grow and picked it straight from their backyards when it came time to eat.

Boise, Idaho, the place where he lives now, is not like that. “We did not grow up like this,” Nuro said. “We grew up in the farm fields.”

Nuro was resettled in Boise in 2004, after a decade of living in a refugee camp. He and his fellow refugees escaped war and a countries in a state of unrest. They’re in a better, safer, calmer place. But for many of Nuro’s countrymen living in the United States, the change in diet has had dramatic effects.

While working to help refugees resettle in the Treasure Valley, Susan Obasi-Ikeagwu started noticing the consequences of highly-processed American food on African families. She said they wanted to adopt a western way of living, which meant adopting a western diet, too.

But she saw the results of illnesses like hypertension, obesity and diabetes running rampant.

“I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, these people get here and start eating things that they are not familiar with, that they don’t have back at home,’” Obasi-Ikeagwu said. “People eat more natural there than in the U.S. The more remote area of Africa, the more natural their food is.”

Suddenly inundated with changes in culture, language, landscape, social standing, family, community, and lifestyle, refugees face another change as well: food that sprouts from genetically-modified seeds, grown in soil spiked with fertilizers, harvested from crops sprinkled with pesticides, and processed to withstand storage before eating.

What surprised Obasi-Ikeagwu most, though, was that the health changes weren’t all physical.

“People get here and they eat all this kind of food and they add weight, they get depressed, they have mental health issues, and they get on medication upon medication,” she said.

Obasi-Ikeagwu explained the difficulty many refugees face in finding fresh healthy food. Stores like Whole Foods and Natural Grocers are hard for them to get to and can be cost-prohibitive. So to help connect new arrivals with healthier food, Obasi-Ikeagwu and her husband opened a shop in the Boise International Market called Shepherd’s Heart Farm, where they specialize in grass-fed, organic meats.

The issue has layers, though. It’s not just junk food that causes problems for refugees—it’s also a drastic change in lifestyle. Going from a country where infrastructure is limited, people walk much further in a day and they often spend more of their time farming in a field rather than sitting in an office sitting can exacerbate bad health. Then there’s the new level of stress.

“Some get so busy because they have to pay all these bills, something they’re not used to,” Obasi-Ikeagwu said. “When you have all that unordinary pressure, you tend to take to food like, ‘Oh, I’m so depressed right now, just bring on that food, bring on that chocolate.’”

The stress also comes from worry over family and friends left behind in Africa, Nuro added.

“[The refugees] are just sitting at home watching TV, thinking a lot about home, and their blood pressure is going up,” Nuro said. “They go to the doctor and they get the dose [of medication] increasing every month. High blood pressure still there, not going down.”

America’s food consumption habits create a built-in trap for newly arrived refugees to fall into. Most of them have spent years, even decades, in refugee camps where they were given only small rations of mostly non-perishable foods. Coming to America, they’re suddenly surrounded by gigantic grocery stores and dozens of fast food chains.

When Somali-native Abdullahi Mohamed arrived in Boise in August of 2013 from Jordan, his sole food source was just that.

“In the morning, I used to go to Wendy’s, then when I come back for dinner, I used to go to McDonald’s,” Mohamed said. “For four months, I was living like that. Sometimes I was not feeling okay but when you are hungry, you will not care. When you have no choice, it will become to you a habit.”

Back in Jordan, the 28-year-old worked as a physician, but his medical expertise didn’t transfer to the United States, so he currently works on an assembly line at Micron while he studies up on the American medical system.

Mohamed moved here with no family, no friends and no cooking skills. He lived with a group of American roommates, but no one in the household shared meals or cooked together. That left Mohamed adjusting to a diet of nothing but fast food.

“When you eat fast foods, they only last for a few hours and again you will feel hungry,” he said. “They will not give you much benefit like normal foods. I don’t want to make advertisement, but the Wendy’s was a little bit fresher than the McDonald’s. When I used to eat from the Wendy’s, I’d feel a little bit good, but when I ate from the McDonald’s—no.”

His eating habits only changed when he moved in with other Somalis, who cook and eat dinner together every night.

“I started eating normal food, and I started to feel a big difference than how it was before,” Mohamed said.

He explained that it’s a struggle to get decent food in America for little money. In Jordan. he said he could get a good meal for only a few dollars. Here, that’s not an option.

“It’s different from our country, how our food is,” Mohamed said. “Here, fast food is available and cheap. Mostly, people who come here without family, they get used to eating it like me. I don’t have time to cook and I don’t know how to cook so the best way is to go out and buy some fast food like McDonald’s.”

Mohamed is a skinny guy living without the illnesses facing other Somali refugees in his community. He said he was able to escape the long-term health problems stemming from unnatural foods but he was sure if he kept eating that way, they would appear with time.

As president of the Somali Bantu Zigua Community here in Boise, Nuro needed a solution to help his fellow Somalis overcome or prevent these illnesses. So he found some land. It’s a field out in Eagle and every Saturday and Sunday, Nuro uses two vans to bring Somali refugees out to the farm. He said that after only a few months, their health began to change.

“They started to go to the doctor and the doctor sees the blood pressure is going down. Then they started to lower the dose until some people don’t need medicine anymore,” Nuro said. “The doctors ask, ‘What are you taking? What are you doing differently? What are you eating?’ and they say, ‘Oh, we don’t take anything, we just go to the farm and we can eat fresh food. We’re not eating the store food now. It’s just like what we’re used to.”

Nuro said a few doctors even came out and visited the farm to see what was causing their patients’ improvements. The farm is barren and frost-covered these days, but Nuro uses a greenhouse in west Boise to plant the beginnings of seeds that will turn into the summer’s crops. Once the farm is in full swing again, a portion of the produce harvested will be sold at the Farmer’s Market and be donated to the Idaho Food Bank.

“I’m the doctor now,” Nuro laughed.