By Amy Harris 

March is National Nutrition Awareness month in the US 

No matter where in the world one is born, eating nutritiously helps promote good health. Food preferences vary by culture, but some truths hold across cultural boundaries. Scientists agree that a healthy diet contains a mixture of proteins (such as meats, fish, beans, or dairy), fats (oils), carbohydrates (potatoes, fufu, breads, rice), vegetables, fruits, vitamins, minerals, and water. Making healthy food and drink choices over a lifetime can help prevent or slow the development of chronic (long-term) conditions such as stroke, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and obesity. Moving to a different country presents challenges: familiar ingredients may not always be available and new food and drink choices may taste delicious, but not prove nutritious. So how can a newcomer know what to eat? 

Tips for healthy eating 

Food nutrition labels are required by the U.S. government on most prepared foods, to be sure foods are safe and nutritious and to help people make smart eating choices. The food labels are similar to road signs, which keep travelers from getting lost. Reading food nutrition labels helps people make smart eating choices and stay healthy. 

The major elements to note on labels are: serving size, calories, added sugars, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium (salt). To reach or stay at a healthy weight, the serving size or portion is just as important as the kind of food itself. Eating foods with high amounts of trans and saturated fats, salt, and added sugars can increase the risk of developing obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease – all common diseases in the U.S. These types of foods include chips, candy, and fast food. Soda (non-diet) and juices have a lot of sugar, and diet sodas have artificial sweeteners and food additives, so the healthiest choice for drinking is water.  

Tips for Healthy Eating 

  1. Aim for 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day 
  1. Fill your plate with a variety of colorful foods 
  1. Eat fresh foods instead of packaged or premade foods  
  1. Eat traditional foods from your own culture  
  1. Make a grocery list to help choose healthier foods 
  1. Cook homemade meals and choose healthy recipes  
  1. Enjoy food with others at home whenever possible 

Nutritious traditional foods 

First-generation immigrants are often healthier in some ways than people of similar heritage who are born in the U.S. Scientists agree this may be because some elements of the Western diet contribute to a decline in health, including processed and fast foods, and an on-the-go lifestyle. According to research, the longer immigrants spend in this country, they are more likely to become overweight, diabetic, and develop high blood pressure. So sticking with the cultural traditions and foods of one’s country of origin not only helps people survive cultural shock and carry on traditions, but can also improve one’s health. 

We are used to big meals with everyone sitting together, and we believe food is better when shared. Canjero is a cultural food, and finding the right ingredients is still very challenging. My mom and her friends did different experiments to find the right ingredients to imitate our cultural dish

Usira A., a 21-year-old college student from Somalia. 

Food insecurity 

Maine’s food insecurity rate is worse than the national average. The state ranks fifth in the nation for very low food security rates. Food insecurity means the lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life. This severe type of food insecurity currently impacts more than 31,000 Maine households.  

The pandemic has increased food insecurity among families with children, as well as in communities of color, according to Feeding America, a national hunger relief charity. And these two groups of people already faced hunger at much higher rates than other groups before the pandemic. Employment, eligibility for benefits such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), access to transportation, housing, and language fluency are just some of the social determinants of nutrition in Maine, with structural factors and systemic racism increasing the difficulty for some to access help. For example, Feeding America reported that nationally, Hispanic children and their families are less likely to receive SNAP benefits compared to non-Hispanic White or African-American children.  

Mainers work to improve nutrition for those in need 

Maine-based organizations are working in innovative ways to celebrate and preserve nutritional cultural food traditions and end hunger in Maine. Maine SNAP-Ed, which provides nutrition education services to low-income Mainers, has developed a Somali-language version of My Plate, a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) visual diagram of a plate, divided into the five food groups, to help people make healthy food choices. And In Her Kitchen, a program of the nonprofit In Her Presence, encourages women to value the traditional foods of their countries of origin. 

Good Shepherd Food Bank has several initiatives that include investing in more than 70 food producers and processors owned by members of communities of color expanding the Mainers Feeding Mainers program, and, most recently, installing a new website toolbar under the “Accessibility and Language” tab that translates their website into more than 100 languages, with 35 languages enabled for audio screen reading. See

Four months into a new job as a Good Shepherd Community Impact Manager, Khadija Ahmed has been working in shelters, food pantries, and the Portland and Westbrook school systems. She and colleague Marpheen Chann are working with the Good Shepherd Food Bank and its partners to provide culturally appropriate foods that help immigrants feel at home. 

In the schools… we develop recipes and try to find the middle ground – like serving red rice, but with African or Afghan spices…. That way we can change minds from a young age, help other children accept children of color, then the future is better…removing barriers in minds through food.

Khadija Ahmed

Healthier nutrition means healthier communities 

Healthy eating does not mean eliminating favorite foods from one’s country of origin – especially during the adjustment phase of adapting to life in a new culture. Instead, the goal is to use healthy-eating tips while continuing to prepare and enjoy healthy foods from one’s culture, at home with family or friends. These foods provide more than nutrition; they contain memories, bring joy, are tied to family, and are an important part of identity.