Published: December 20, 2021
Nourishing Foreign-Born Military Spouses: Culturally-Inclusive Food Challenges
The comfort of familiar foods is a connection to family and culture. Whether certain dishes are your favorites from childhood or the scent takes you back to a happy moment, the feeling goes beyond just a full stomach. Sharing a meal is a ritual, and foods are part of our home, family, culture, and even identity.
But imagine for a moment living in a place where vital ingredients for your cherished family dishes are simply unavailable in your community. This is the reality of many foreign-born military spouses who have trouble finding culturally-specific foods.
Anicia Myers, Blue Star Families’ Chicagoland DEPLOY Fellow, is a South African of Indian origin and a military spouse. “My favorite foods from my childhood are Indian curries, trifles, peppermint tarts, and garage pies,” she shared. “I grew up in South Africa, but we have a huge Indian population. It has been incredibly difficult to find many, many different ingredients, from vegetables and spices to snacks from my home country. I have had to adapt and adjust my eating habits. Some people might assume that being Indian, I could easily go to an Indian grocery store and find what I need, but in South Africa, we use different spices in our curries and have a different taste profile. If I feel like eating a snack from South Africa, buying these from an online store is incredibly expensive.”
Anicia isn’t alone in experiencing those challenges. In fact, the Foreign Military Spouse Association reported that foreign-born spouses, like Anicia, are represented in all branches of the military and come from over 60 countries (Foreign Military Spouse Association USA, 2020). While foreign-born military spouses face difficulties that are well-known within the broad military spouse world, such as finding employment, they also have to navigate adapting to culture, and the immigration process and associated expenses. Each of these challenges can contribute directly to food insecurity:
- Finding employment: While 76% of foreign-born military spouses have a college degree, only 38% are working, and nearly as many are involuntarily unemployed (Foreign Military Spouse Association USA, 2020). Blue Star Families’ 2020 Military Family Lifestyle Survey found that among active-duty enlisted spouse respondents who are unemployed but want or need to work, 20% reported low or very low food security, compared to the 10% among active-duty enlisted spouses who are working (both full time and part time) (Blue Star Families, 2021).
- Adapting to culture: A lack of belonging has negative impacts on emotional and mental health. Interrupted spiritual and relational support can greatly impact one’s sense of belonging. Transitions in the military lifestyle and separation from home, family, and cultural connections contribute to the lack of belonging. The emotional and mental fallout may influence one’s ability to plan for meals, grocery shop, and properly nourish oneself.
- Immigration process and associated expenses: According to the Foreign Military Spouse Association, the immigration process can present a challenge, along with the average of $4,000 spent on immigration-related expenses (Foreign Military Spouse Association USA, 2020). Obviously, when a military family faces high expenses and financial limitations, food insecurity can be lurking around the corner.
Therefore, the obstacle of sourcing culturally-inclusive ingredients impacts Anicia’s sense of belonging and more.
“It makes it difficult to feel that sense of belonging,” she said. “This also results in me feeling homesick a lot. Especially when you’re sick or pregnant and all you want are foods that you’re familiar with, having access to familiar foods will make you feel better and more at home.”
For foreign-born military spouses experiencing a separation from their traditional diet, the effects extend from emotional health to physical health. Healthy eating can look different for everyone, and cultural background provides a clue on a person’s relationship with food. A lack of culturally diverse nutritional education can mean that people who need support will not receive appropriate support. Further, if they’re relying on foods from donated sources, they may not be receiving foods that are valuable to their dietary needs. Wellness is diverse, and considerations for culturally-appropriate wellness must be made.
In an effort to increase ethnic and racial diversity in the nutrition and dietetics industry, organizations like Diversity Dietetics are on a mission to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population. What’s more, Diversify Dietetics recognizes the need for representation of students of color, like Darah, a Human Nutrition graduate student.
Darah is an active-duty Navy spouse. She’s also a first generation college student from a Filipino family, and she found an interest in dietetics when she became a mother to a premature baby.
“My son was in the NICU for a little over a month and then the PICU afterwards,” Darah shared. “During his time in the NICU, I learned so much about how to feed him and supplement his diet. When we were finally able to take him home, I also learned just how much my food intake affected his health status. I learned how to change my diet so that the breastmilk he consumed was gentler on his stomach. I also learned that he needed infant multivitamins and iron added to his bottles to help support his growth. With all this to say: becoming a mom really opened up my eyes to nutrition and dietetics and the important role it plays in health and in the prevention and treatment of disease.”
Darah credits her upbringing and background as a Filipino immigrant for influencing her relationship with food. “I think being exposed to a variety of cultural foods as a child has helped prevent me from being a picky eater,” she said. “It’s also shown me that food is more than just physical nourishment. It brings people together. Growing up, I remember stepping into other Filipino homes and being offered food all the time. Not because they thought I was hungry but because it was part of the culture–to care for others through food.”
Darah hopes her education and experience while working toward becoming a registered dietitian will benefit military families on a larger scale by increasing cultural and racial diversity in the field of dietetics — either by mentoring future dietetic students, precasting them, or even going into higher education as an advisor or professor.
“As a current military spouse, I understand the struggles of constantly moving and changing health care providers,” Darah said. “I also understand that many military families often don’t feel heard when they come in to get seen by someone. If I were to work at a local military hospital that serves both active duty and their families, I hope to be able to show up and provide the best patient care I can for the families that I do see. I am also interested in tactical and performance nutrition and how that can impact the performance of active-duty servicemen and women during their training and everyday work tasks.”
Check out Darah’s favorite recipe here.
Increased understanding helps us all embrace our foreign-born military spouses and provides an opportunity to learn about other cultures. Foreign-born military spouses are our neighbors and our coworkers, and this effort brings them a sense of belonging.
“As a foreign [military spouse], I want to share my culture and foods with people I meet as that will give a snippet of my life, what I grew up eating, and it will give me that sense of belonging,” Anicia shared. “It will take me back to those family gatherings I remember as a child.”
Check out Anicia’s favorite recipe here.
Ultimately, this multicultural environment that we know as military life provides many opportunities to share and learn, and creates a better environment in which all families can thrive. Our lives and our palate can benefit from an open, inclusive mindset while we work together to overcome racial and ethnic divisions and build stronger relationships that result in stronger, better-nourished military communities. That is what Nourish the Service is all about.
Thank you to Amazon and Craig Newmark Philanthropies for sponsoring Blue Star Families’ Food Insecurity DEPLOY Fellowship!
About — Diversify Dietetics. (n.d.). Diversify Dietetics. Retrieved December 8, 2021, from https://www.diversifydietetics.org/about
Blue Star Families. (2021, March 29). 2020 Military Family Lifestyle Survey Comprehensive Report. chrome-extension://cefhlgghdlbobdpihfdadojifnpghbji/https://bluestarfam.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/BSF_MFLS_CompReport_FINDING_12.pdf
Foreign Military Spouse Association USA. (2020). Foreign Military Spouse Association USA. Infographic. Retrieved November 23, 2021, from https://05452a0f-1c9f-43be-8084-f5c2b68389cf.filesusr.com/ugd/61047d_daf81114e9f2470d82d5249860d7a923.pdf
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2019). Strengthening the Military Family Readiness System for a Changing American Society. The National Academies Press. Retrieved November 23, 2021, from https://doi.org/10.17226/25380