Teaching nutrition to refugees in the Salt Lake Valley

Story and photos by ZACH CARLSON

Laureen Carlson is an employee for the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program through Utah State University’s College of Agriculture. Carlson’s goal is to help individuals and families, especially those who are lower-income, eat healthy and affordable. Carlson said EFNEP is available in every state and most territories. Carlson has been employed by EFNEP since 2013.

For the past four years Carlson has gotten to know many refugees. Most of the refugees she has worked with are Nepalese, but she has also worked with some families from Sudan and other African countries.

When asked what nutrition was like in refugee camps, Carlson said, “They would get packages that they were so appreciative for. But for example, their protein was lacking.” She also added that they would get meat packed in salt. Salt-packed meat isn’t as healthy but does last longer. “Their diet consisted mainly of rice with small amounts of vegetables,” Carlson said.

Once refugees get to Utah they can get the ingredients that they really need to be healthy and provide for their family from a nutrition standpoint. Carlson said one of the biggest problems she faces is getting refugee families to eat complete proteins. Because most families face dietary restrictions due to their religion or customs, they only will eat goat or yak — especially with the Nepalese. These also happen to be two of the more expensive meats to purchase, so many families go without the proper proteins that they need.

Carlson’s goal is for families to eat healthy, not necessarily eating like Americans. “I always try to be their facilitator using their own bread, yogurt, whatever food and spices they regularly eat,” Carlson said.

Often, she tries to combine common foods here with food or spices that refugees know and eat. Carlson said many families make their own yogurt. She will use this yogurt with fruits to make healthy smoothies. One of her other go-to foods is pizza.

She uses bread that the family makes in place of regular pizza dough. “With almost everything we add spices we wouldn’t traditionally use in American pizza. I use theirs,” she said. “They have these tin containers that have all these different spices. Some of them have even brought those when they came because they are very careful with their spices. I would have them use what spices they wanted on their pizza.”

She would then add cheese that meets their dietary standards. This is to add more dairy to their diet. “I don’t think I went into a refugee home that was getting enough dairy,” Carlson said. She added that some children do get enough dairy, because many refugee mothers nurse longer than average here. Most of the refugee families Carlson teaches breastfeed the children until they are about 3, with one family even nursing a child until he was 5.

Carlson only speaks English, so sometimes there is a language barrier in their communication. When she can, Carlson works with a Nepalese translator, Chandra Sapkota. Sapkota often asks for Carlson because he considers her to work well with the families.

Google Translate is an incredibly helpful tool for her to communicate with refugees who aren’t fluent in English when she doesn’t have Sapkota’s help. She recalls one instance where she was teaching a mother, who spoke little English, how to make tuna casserole for her daughter. By using Google Translate, Carlson could communicate by typing in what she wanted to say in English, then it was translated to the mom’s native language. Because she can’t read, Carlson would have Google Translate “speak” the translated message to her.

“You couldn’t tell her to go buy tuna fish because she wouldn’t know. I left her all the cans, everything, so that way she could go match it in the store,” she said. “So, not only did we make it together but you can’t give her a recipe. We ended up having to make it two different times so that she could go through all the steps. In hindsight, I should have had her do voice recordings on her phone,” Carlson said. This is a new technique she has begun using, where she will have refugees record the steps in recipes on their phone in their own language. This helps them re-create the meals cooked together on their own, because they can grasp the cooking concepts better.

A health and hygiene issue that Carlson faces involves proper dental care. “I never saw a grandparent or great-grandparent that had a full set of teeth. There were multiple children that their teeth had rotted and had to be pulled. That was something we would try to bring up and encourage. We really would talk about brushing teeth and things like that,” she said.

Carlson said it is uncommon for a refugee to eat out a lot and get fast food often, but she has taught some refugees who partake in American food. She taught an African refugee who was extremely excited to be here and eat American food. But then he noticed that he was gaining a lot of weight. Carlson said once he realized how much weight he was gaining he immediately stopped eating fast food and went back to the food of his culture. He began working out to lose weight and is back to where he was before he dove into American food.

Carlson said most of the families she teaches make food from their homeland. Most, if not all of them, cook their own food, typically curry, sometimes three times a day. One indulgence that she has had a problem with is soda pop. They particularly love Fanta Orange.

“There’s something about Fanta Orange,” she says. Many of the refugee families thought that Fanta had juice in it and that they were being healthy. They loved that they were drinking juice and that it tasted so good. Except it wasn’t juice. Even when she went back to visit them later after her teaching with them concluded, some families still consumed Fanta Orange very frequently.

Life is hard for everyone, refugees included. For many refugees, their trials and hardships don’t end once they get to a new country. They instead face a new set of challenges that take the place others. A big challenge that many of them face is eating properly. Through the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, Laureen Carlson helps refugees get the nutrients they need without spending unreasonable amounts of money.