Friday, August 3, 2012

Culturally Competent Food

Micah Phillips, Food Bank Specialist at SFC Member Jewish Family Service Food Bank, describes how Jewish Family Service implemented knowledge learned from a SFC Cultural Competency training. 

At the Cultural Competency session in July, we heard from five panelists about how each of their cultures approaches food and hunger issues.  We heard from Yuriy Martyn about the Ukranian community, Munira Mohamed about the Somali community, Kim Long Nguyen abou tthe Vietnamese community, Gary Tang about the Chinese community, and Perla Perez Ramos about the Latino community.  As a former Peace Corps Volunteer to China, I was particularly interested in what Gary had to say. Having lived in Sichuan Province in southwest China for two years, I am familiar with the food eaten in the southwest, west, central and north regions of the country.  Southeast China, on the other hand—Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the provinces around Guangdong (Canton)—the area where most of our Chinese clients come from, is an area with which I am much less familiar.  I am aware, of course, of the Southeastern Chinese fare that is found in most American Chinese restaurants: dim sum, congee, etc.  I am less aware of what Southeastern Chinese people actually eat.  Thankfully, Gary confirmed what I already assumed: Chinese clients are less interested in wheat flour products, creamy sauces and root vegetables like potatoes and carrots.  They tend to be more interested in fresh greens, tofu, meat and rice. They are also particularly fond of “Asian” vegetables, like lotus root, bitter melon, kabocha and taro. 

After the session, we at the JFS Food Bank began a project catering specifically to our Chinese Home Delivery clients.  At Leschi House in the International District, all of our clients receiving food deliveries are of Asian descent.  About one-third of the clients are Vietnamese or from some other Southeast Asian country and almost two-thirds are from China.  Taking into account all that we learned from the Cultural Competency session, we began tailoring our basic food bags to account for these Asian clients’ specific dietary preferences.  We modified, for example, the staple food items we normally put into our bags—typically “Western” items like oatmeal, flour pasta, tomato sauce, bread, canned soups and canned beans—and instead added more Asian staples like rice noodles, jasmine rice, tofu and dried red or black beans.  For the fresh produce, we made similar changes, so instead of having vegetables usually found in the Western diet—leaf lettuce, potatoes, cauliflower and carrots—we substituted more traditionally Asian vegetables, like bok choy, rapeseed greens, lotus root and Siamese ginger.  We also made an effort to buy our ingredients from the local grocery stores at which our clients might actually shop.  We bought last month’s fresh produce from a Vietnamese-owned grocery store at 10th and Jackson.

For someone outside the food community looking in, the act of providing a different kind of noodle or leafy green vegetable might not seem important.  At the JFS Food Bank, however, we believe that difference matters.  Sure, a hungry person will put anything into the pan and call it dinner.  But if that person can look at their food and experience nostalgia for the place they came from, perhaps it makes their meal that much more satisfying.  That’s what we at the JFS Food Bank are striving for, and what Solid Ground’s session inspired us to provide.  Culturally competent food that our clients appreciate.  

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