Mastering Strange Food in a Strange Land

by Suzanne Clark

Like any immigrant group, newly arrived Vietnamese face a nutritional challenge--adapting to unfamiliar foods, prepared in unfamiliar ways. Add in financial limitations and language barriers, and it's easy to understand how serious nutritional problems can arise, particularly for young children.

Joanne Ikeda, Cooperative Extension nutrition education specialist at the College of Natural Resources, has a project to address these problems. Through the combined efforts of Cooperative Extension and the California Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children, Ikeda led a team that developed "Culturally Relevant Nutrition Education" for Vietnamese women eligible for the WIC program.

"After they arrive here, Vietnamese women usually increase their intake of saturated fat while decreasing their intake of fiber. They also abandon breast feeding as a common practice," Ikeda says. "Many of the dietary changes they make can lead to significant health problems for them and their children."

In piloting the education nutrition program, Cooperative Extension offices hired bilingual Vietnamese Americans to teach selected groups of immigrant women living in five urban centers throughout California--Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose.

The overall results? "These women improved the overall nutritional quality of their diet," says Ikeda. "They came to understand the importance of a balanced diet, how regular exercise and adequate rest contributed to good health, how to eat right during pregnancy. They also learned the dangers of smoking and drug abuse.

"By gathering dietary intake information on each participant at the beginning and end of the program, we were able to document a dramatic increase in calcium intake in these women, Ikeda said.

To date, 336 women have completed the program, now in its third year, and 55 are currently enrolled.

Nutrition education specialist Joanne Ikeda, center, and assistant Loan Pham, left, and postgraduate researcher Kim Nguyen, right.


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