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Nimo Yusuf

Extension nutrition education assistant Nimo Yusuf teaches healthy eating habits to immigrant populations.

Healthy eating in a new land

Extension educators use hands-on approach to bridge Somali culture and American society

June 26, 2008; updated July 8

Home to an estimated 70,000 Somalis, Minnesota claims the largest Somali population in the United States. Like other recent immigrants with limited resources and busy lives, many of the state's Somali families are struggling to find a middle ground between affordable, nutritious food and quick, easy preparation.

The traditional Somali diet is a healthy one, but sticking to it proved difficult when the Somalis fled their war-torn country. Getting back on track after resettlement in the United States required help from someone with knowledge of Somali cuisine and how to recreate it using foods available in their new country.

Besides that, the new culinary landscape contains a second danger for Somalis in America: type II diabetes. The traditional Somali diet relies heavily on carbohydrate-rich foods, a situation that, along with the more sedentary American way of life, paves the way for diabetes.

Research shows the condition surfacing at younger ages and progressing faster in Somalis than in the population at large. Somali women are at particular risk for obesity and the higher risk of type II diabetes it brings, and because they usually shop and cook for their households, it's important to educate them about food issues.

Ilhan Omar and Nimo Yusuf are two of more than 100 nutrition education assistants who teach healthy eating habits to new immigrants through the University of Minnesota Extension's Nutrition Education Program in community centers across the state. Using the Extension curriculum, the pair help fill the needs of the Somali community and other immigrants in Hennepin County. "There is a great need here for people who know the Somali language and understand the culture," says Shelley Sherman, an Extension health and nutrition educator based in the Twin Cities.

How do recent immigrants learn about healthy American foods?

Extension teaches the Simply Good Eating Program to families from many immigrant backgrounds, using an adapted English Language Learner (ELL) version of the curriculum. One partner in this effort is the Winnetka Learning Center in New Hope. To learn more about the curriculum, see Simply Good Eating.

In less than two years with Extension, Omar and Yusuf have worked with nearly 1,000 people--about half Somali--teaching them to create nutritious meals on a tight budget. They also help families work through new challenges: children who embrace Americans' affinity for fast food and sugar, encouraging and teaching men to cook as their wives join the workforce, and resolving issues that surface when dealing with Muslim dietary restrictions in a foreign land. "Muslims don't consume pork products, and people get their information by word of mouth," says Omar. "We do the research to tell them what contains pork byproducts and what doesn't. We are not going to change beliefs they've built up their whole life, but we can share information about how things can work for them in America." Yusuf agrees. "We see ourselves as the bridge between Somali culture and American society: We are in the middle, holding both hands," she says. "It's a good feeling." For more information about the nutrition education programs, visit University of Minnesota Extension.