From conflict to California: a journey through cooking and food

This article first appeared on the Women & Girls Hub from News Deeply

Sharing food from their homeland is helping the San Francisco Bay Area’s women refugees to resettle in a new country, while raising awareness of migration and its difficulties.

As a single mother living in the world’s largest refugee camp for 21 years, Somali-born Halimo supported her family by running her own small restaurant. From 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. each day, the mother of three fed more than 100 residents of Kenya’s Dadaab camp, serving up her signature dish of malawah – a sweet Somali pancake.

It’s a recipe Halimo shares – along with her story of resettling to the U.S. in 2011 – in “Between Meals,” a cookbook celebrating the food and lives of California’s refugee women.

Welcoming some 1,400 refugees each year, the San Francisco Bay Area is home to people fleeing conflict or deprivation across the globe, from Afghanistan and Burma to Nepal and Sri Lanka. And for more than 30 years, Bay Area nonprofit Refugee Transitions has been supporting newcomers through education, family engagement and community leadership programs.

The “Between Meals” cookbook project grew out of Refugee Transitions’ home-based tutoring program – a core plank of its work that connects low-income, high-need newcomers with community volunteers who teach them English and life skills. Through sharing meals with their host families and new communities, refugee women share their traditions and much-loved foods but also talk about the experiences that have brought them to their new home.

From Halimo’s Somali malawah pancakes to Naw Htoo’s coconut chicken soup from Thailand, from Arezo’s Afghan meat dumplings to Devi’s goat curry from Nepal, every single recipe tells a story.

Arezo and her family arrived in California from Afghanistan in 2010, when it was no longer safe to live in their native Kabul. Arezo misses her homeland, and the feeling of being surrounded by a large community. So she cooks to remember home and creates meals to connect with new friends. Her meat dumplings (mantu) are made with Japanese gyoza skins from a Mexican market in San Jose in California.

“Mantu is special to me because my mother made it for me the day I found out I was pregnant with my first child,” says Arezo. “I make mantu in California, especially when I miss Kabul and my family in Afghanistan.”

Laura Vaudreuil, executive director at Refugee Transitions, says food plays a significant part in the refugee journey: “Culinary traditions are a thread that connects these women to their homeland, to the personal and cultural history. ‘Between Meals’ is our contribution to preserving these (often disappearing) traditions, and highlighting refugee women’s experiences and expertise, which are so often undervalued.”

To create the cookbook, the volunteer tutor would spend between two and four hours a week with their student to hear their story, cook together and turn their dish into a recipe. Volunteers are trained in the “language experience approach,” which uses familiar subjects such as a food to accelerate language learning.

“Between Meals” author Lauren Markham says the process of recipe and story gathering led to “deepening connections” between volunteers and their students. “When Refugee Transitions matched refugee students with a new volunteer, families were often really excited to have visitors and met them with tea, snacks or even a four-course meal,” says Markham.

“The food was so delicious and the gestures so loving. [Refugee] women may not have worked in their home country so they don’t think of cooking as a skill. In an age of celebrity chefs, all of these wonderful home chefs are under-recognized.”

One of the hardest parts of the cookbook project was turning the student’s instinctive process of creating a familiar dish into a more precise process of measuring ingredients and cooking times. “You have to see the techniques for yourself and a lot of them were new to the volunteers,” explains Markham.

Another challenge was sourcing ingredients for these traditional dishes – from locating a goat farm an hour’s drive from Oakland to make goat curry to tracking down galangal root ginger in a Chinatown market for a Burmese chicken stew.

Vaudreuil says cross-cultural bonds like those created through the cookbook project are hugely beneficial to newcomers seeking to become self-sufficient and integrate into their adopted communities.

But it’s a two-way street. “Often, volunteer tutors tell us that they have benefited as much from the partnership as their students did. After all, tutoring exposes one to new knowledge, intelligence and perspectives that newcomers bring with them to the U.S.,” says Vaudreuil.

The project has been supported by Cal Humanities, an independent nonprofit state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. All profits from sales of “Between Meals” are distributed among the women who contributed to the cookbook, which has just printed its second edition.

“‘Between Meals’ boldly strikes new ground by centralizing the stories of the powerful women featured and elevating them as historians, keepers of culture and preservers of food traditions, as well as cooks,” says chef, educator and author Bryant Terry.

Arezo learned to make jalebi – a deep-fried syrupy sweet served at birthdays, weddings and other special occasions – from her mother at the age of 13. “In our religion, Islam, it says to eat together – to talk, to enjoy. This goes, too, for cooking … Everyone loves jalebi. When I make it in California, it reminds me of many happy times.”


Feeding the spirit

Between Meals 1 (not in final)

As featured in The Guardian’s Pick of the blogs

As newly-arrived refugees and immigrants navigate the myriad challenges in their new environments, it is often food and its important cultural traditions that are the mainstay in this journey.

Between Meals collects stories and recipes from California’s refugee women to paint a picture of their lives, past and present. The cookbook chronicles the experiences of women leaving their homes in Afghanistan, Burma, Somalia, Sri Lanka and beyond, and the vital role that traditional cooking plays at every stage of the process.

From the malawah flatbread that Somali refugee Halimo cooked each day in the Dadaab refugee camp, to Afghan newcomer Arezo’s celebratory jalebi sweet, every recipe tells a story.

Between Meals 5

Memory box

Cookbook author Lauren Markham sees Between Meals as both a preservation project – a recipe “memory box” from the US diaspora communities – as well as a reflection on the creative process by which refugee and immigrant women put down roots in their new homes.

It highlights the challenges that women face when adapting their food to new communities, from locating a goat farm an hour’s drive away, to tracking down galangal root at a Chinatown market.

Between Meals is a project of San Francisco Bay Area non-profit agency, Refugee Transitions, which supports newly-arrived refugees and immigrants into their new communities through education, family engagement and community leadership programs.

Funded by Cal Humanities, the cookbook was developed from Refugee Transition’s home-based tutoring program, where shared meals are often core to the student-tutor relationship.

Between Meals 3

Making connections

Executive director Laura Vaudreuil says that, for those who have had to leave all behind, sharing a meal means more than just sharing food: “When all that is left are memories of home, the smells, tastes and experience of a meal recreated can take people back to friends and family.”

Arezo enjoys making her mantu Afghan dumplings for family and new friends. “Mantu is special to me because my mother made it for me the day I found out I was pregnant with my first child.

“I make mantu in California, especially when I miss Kabul and my family in Afghanistan.”

Between Meals is available to order here Profits from the book will be distributed among the cookbook contributors. 



Brands continue to target fast food marketing at kids

child eating beefburger

Each year, the world’s food and beverage companies spend billions on marketing and advertising their products to children and teenagers. The overwhelming majority of these products are high in calories, added sugar, saturated fat and sodium – fast food, fizzy drinks, sweets and chocolate to name just a few. Ask your child to recall a food advert and chances are that it won’t be one for apples or broccoli.

US fast food restaurants alone spent $4.6bn on advertising to children and teens in 2012. According to Fast Food Facts 2013, children under six saw almost three adverts for fast foods every day, while 12-17-year-olds saw almost five adverts a day.

Between 2010 and 2013, the number of kids’ meals at fast-food restaurants increased by 54%. But the percentage of items that qualified as healthy – less than 1% – remained stagnant.

Report lead author Jennifer Harris, director of marketing at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, is concerned that many companies are shifting their focus to increase reach into markets not currently covered by the current system of voluntary self regulation.

“A lot of companies have switched their marketing target to the 12-14 [age] group. This is a really vulnerable time for kids; they are seeing more media and making more decisions on their own,” Harris says.

Around one in three children in the US – and in the UK – is overweight or obese. A study published this month by Roberto De Vogli of UC Davis in California found that fast food purchases were independent predictors of increases in the average body mass index (BMI) in the US and 24 other wealthy nations between 1999 to 2008.

So what is business doing?

Encouraging food and drink companies to rethink their messages is the aim of the first White House convening on food marketing to children. Launching the meeting last September, US First Lady Michelle Obama called on the private sector to “move faster” to market responsibly to children.

In January 2014, Subway became the first quick service chain to join Partnership for a Healthy America, a campaign endorsed by Obama to bring together business, non-profits and health advisers to tackle childhood obesity. A three-year commitment worth $41m will see it market healthier options and promote fruit and veg consumption.

Disney has pledged that by 2015, all food and beverage products advertised, sponsored, or promoted on Disney-owned media channels, online destinations and theme parks will be required to meet nutritional guidelines that align with federal standards to promote fruit and vegetables and limit calories, sugar, sodium, and saturated fat.

Earlier this year, Lidl became the first supermarket group in the UK to remove unhealthy products from all tills across its stores, with no seasonal exceptions for Christmas or Easter confectionery. Lidl is replacing these products with healthier options including fresh and dried fruits, nuts and bottled water.

Should regulation be playing a bigger role?

In the UK, regulation exists to prevent adverts for unhealthy foods from being broadcast during or around programmes specifically made for children. But the Children’s Food Campaign (CFC) argues that the popularity of family entertainment shows like The X-Factor means later bedtimes for many children – and advertisers are taking advantage by promoting unhealthy foods at these times.

In a joint campaign with the British Heart Foundation, the CFC will next month call for a 9pm watershed for fast food and drinks ads and clearer definition of ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ foods, to close existing loopholes.

But the ISBA, which represents British advertisers, argues that the causal link between the ads that viewers watch, and the food choices they make, is “nominal”, and ad prohibitions are currently viewed at the “silver bullet” for tackling a complex public health issue.

Ian Twinn, ISBA’s director of public affairs says: “Encouraging people to change their lifestyle rather than slapping bans on ads is what will make a difference.

“There are plenty of good examples of big brands changing their messages to ensure they stay relevant to their consumers but support the overall message for a healthier lifestyle. Coca-Cola, for instance, only advertises its low calorie or sugar-free products.”

The UC Davis study suggests that if governments take action to control food industries, they can help prevent obesity and its serious health consequences, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes. This echoes calls in the UK and US for more robust, government-led regulation of the industry, rather than voluntary self-regulation.

In the UK, the CFC hopes the government’s food promotion pledge – expected late spring as part of its public health responsibility deal – will target point-of-sale, product packaging, digital marketing and in-school promotion.

Beyond the supermarket

The CFC’s Junk Free Checkouts campaign, launched last September, challenged supermarkets to act on consumer concerns about “pester power” and remove unhealthy snacks from checkouts and queuing areas. Shoppers were urged to hand in pass or fail cards to store managers, and name and shame supermarkets via a dedicated website.

Malcolm Clark, CFC co-ordinator, says: “The government’s responsibility pledge covers supermarkets, but WH Smith and Boots have chocolate at the checkout, so the question will be whether they engage with the other companies.”

Dr Emma Boyland, a psychologist at the University of Liverpool who specialises in the effects of food marketing on children’s diets, says the next challenge is to tackle promotion to children via advergaming and social media.

“The cross-border nature of this [area] means that government can only tackle A little progress has been made with TV but advertising has moved to the Internet.. and into another sphere.”