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Learning to eat well in the land of plenty

Photo by Shuka Kalantari
Dietician Stefania Manetti teaches refugee children how to read nutrition facts.

For most of us, thinking about our healthy eating habits happens maybe once a year at New Years, or right before swimsuit season. But for refugee kids, learning how to eat healthy in America is an entirely new challenge. In another story by reporter Shuka Kalantari, 15-year-old Ja Tu Marip, a foster child from Myanmar, didn’t have a lot of access to junk food like candy and soda. In this story by Shuka Kalantari, Ja Tu’s older sister Seng Raw talks about her adjustment to the American diet.

SENG RAW MARIP: Basically the food in Burma is rice. SHUKA KALANTARI: Seng Raw Marip is 19 years old. And for 17 of those years, rice and curry was pretty much all she ate. Marip grew up in Kachin State in northern Myanmar. MARIP: We eat rice every day.

Marip says the Burmese military government had forced her family into a labor camp. A soldier took a liking to Marip and tried to abuse her. She says her family helped her escape to Malaysia. Soon after, the United Nations found a home in Concord, California for her younger brother and her. Seng Raw Marip was 17 years old at the time. For most American teen girls, that’s a time to self-explore and mature. For recent refugees, it’s a time of very rapid transformation.

MARIP: When I was in Malaysia I didn’t know anything about calories. Read the label at the back? You know? On the packet? I didn’t really care.

In Concord, nutritional information was written on almost everything Marip ate. Only it was in English. And in small print. So she didn’t pay much attention to it at first. It wasn’t long before she developed a taste for certain American junk foods, especially fried foods and soda. She began to gain weight and, like most teenage girls, she didn’t like it. The problem was she didn’t know what was causing the rapid weight gain.

MARIP: Before I came here I didn’t know that American food, like fast food, are not healthy.

It fell to Marip’s foster mom, Christine Lue, to explain that not all foods are created equal.

CHRISTINE LUE: Oh, she was really excited about it because she really didn’t know that what she eat is making her gaining weight.

MARIP: And my mom also taught me how to read the labels. And how to read the calories and saturated fat. COLEEN HIGA: I think they have a hard time adjusting to the diet.

Coleen Higa is formerly of Catholic Charities of Santa Clara, a group providing services for refugee foster kids.

HIGA: Nothing tastes like home. Nothing smells like home. The chicken that they’re eating tastes nothing like the chicken they had at home – if they were lucky enough to get any kind of meat.

Higa says she noticed the need for nutrition education when she found out some of the teen girls were going on crash diets.

HIGA: What I discovered was that one of the girls was not eating throughout the day except for her dinner meal. She really liked Taco Bell. Another girl was essentially doing the same thing, but she was eating pizza.

So in order to lose weight, the only meal they’d eat all day long was their favorite fast food at night.

HIGA: Higa says many lived off of one meal a day in the refugee camps. So it didn’t sound unreasonable to do it again to lose weight. She says Catholic Charities saw the need to provide the kids with extra nutrition education to help navigate the Western diet. Now they provide occasional nutrition classes to kids.

It’s a Friday evening and Marip, her brother Ja Tu, and a dozen other refugee foster kids from Myanmar, Mexico, Sierra Leone and other countries are at a nutrition class in downtown San Francisco.

STEFANIA MANETTI: ...but how about the fat in a bag of Cheetos?

The kids watch as dietician Stefania Manetti pulls out a small bag of Cheetos brand chips to demonstrate how much fat it has.

MANETTI: Can I have a volunteer from the group who can answer correctly?

Okay, come over. Do you want to see how much fat is in here?

Manetti asks for a volunteer. A boy shyly raises his hand and walks up to a table covered in sodas, chips and candy. Manetti hands the boy a jar of lard and instructs him to scoop spoonfuls into a measuring cup.

MANETTI: And you might want to use your little … maybe you want two gloves? UNIDENTIFIED BOY: No. MANETTI: Okay. Cool. I know, it’s a bit sticky.

The boy scoops four heaping teaspoons of lard into the cup, nearly filling it. The class agrees that’s a lot of fat for one bag of chips. But that’s how much there is. Then Manetti picks up an avocado to teach the difference between good fats and unhealthy fats.

MANETTI: So what do you think? Do you think the fat in an avocado is good or bad? CHILDREN: Good! MANETTI: Yeah. Exactly. It’s a good kind of fat, and you get a lot of other nutrients from your avocados.

The Marip kids say they’ve learned a lot about eating well since coming to the United States.

MARIP: I didn’t know that soda have so much sugar in it.

It’s about 40 grams – or 10 sugar packets.

MARIP: I don’t drink a lot of soda like before.

Sometimes a clear education is all it takes to develop healthier habits.

In San Francisco, I’m Shuka Kalantari for Crosscurrents.

Shuka Kalantari is a health and culture reporter living in the Bay Area. This story originally aired January 6, 2011.

Crosscurrents refugee nutrition