Improving nutrition and health equity with culturally appropriate food

Patrice E. Cooper is CEO and Phanida Phivilay is Senior Provider Relations Advocate of the Community Plan of Rhode Island.

Food insecurity and poverty disproportionately affects minorities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 11.8% of all households experience food insecurity. Studies of immigrants and refugees typically provide varying estimates of food insecurity ranging from 30% to 60%.1

Individuals who are low-income often rely on government assistance, food pantries or other free food events to make up for a lack of consistent access to food. Yet, these options are not always culturally sensitive, and many times do not meet the individual’s needs.

In Rhode Island, where 16.9% of Asians are living below the poverty line, we recently supported the Center for Southeast Asians’ Year of the Tiger Giveaway.2 During the event, 3,000 people received foods typically eaten in the Southeast Asian diet, such as fish sauce and jasmine rice. These types of culturally appropriate events can improve nutrition and health equities in ethnically diverse communities.

Providing culturally appropriate food is more efficient and saves money

Providing food that is culturally specific at events like these is more efficient because people are likely to eat the food that they know and prefer. When we give away food that is unfamiliar, people may end up throwing it away. Foods that are prohibited due to religious restrictions, such as meat or pork, may also not be eaten. 

When a person receives free or low-cost food that doesn’t meet their personal preferences, they may still direct their own resources to buy food that is culturally familiar. Or if they have limited grocery funds, they may buy food that is not nutrition but calorie dense, cheap and widely available.

Culturally appropriate food can improve health equity and nutrition

Refugee communities are disproportionately affected by food insecurity and chronic diseases compared with the general population. Southeast Asian immigrants have been shown to have higher rates of cancer, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.2

An individual’s socioeconomic status can be a further barrier to maintaining a healthy diet that is culturally familiar. Fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as imported ethnic foods, tend to be more expensive than processed and shelf-stable Western food.

In many instances, immigrants who maintain their traditional cuisine continue to have better health outcomes. For example, refugees in some studies noted a difference in their traditional diet compared to the one they ate in the U.S. They said their traditional diet consisted of smaller portions, fresh fruits and vegetables and limited amount of fatty meat compared to the U.S. diet, which was considered fast, convenient, processed and low-price.3

Food scarcity has been a serious concern for many ethnically diverse individuals for many years. As the problem has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, we must help individuals who can benefit from culturally diverse foods access them cheaply and conveniently. It is one way to improve nutrition and health equities in ethnically diverse communities.

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