University student Ilhan Omar is teaching a new kind of English-as-a-Second-Language class.
She works with Simply Good Eating for English Language Learners, a program designed to help non-native English speakers understand the meaning of food contents and make healthy choices.
“You can’t really be teaching healthy eating unless you teach how to read a label,” Omar said.
Figuring out the amounts of sugars, fats and calories in processed foods can be difficult for non-native English speakers, said food science and nutrition professor Joanne Slavin.
“People come to this country and the food sources are very different,” Slavin said.
Omar’s students come from countries that include Morocco, Mexico, Ethiopia, Iran and Russia.
Many immigrants are used to purchasing natural foods in their home countries, but when they move to the United States, it’s cheaper to buy processed foods, Omar said.
According to the Center for Immigration Studies, roughly one of every six immigrants and their U.S.-born children are living in poverty, a number that’s 50 percent higher than the poverty rate for nonimmigrants and their children.
“They have such a limited income,” she said. “When they go to the store, it’s really hard to buy the fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Omar teaches seven classes a week at various adult learning and community centers in the Twin Cities area.
This week was calcium week at her Winnetka Adult Learning Center class in New Hope.
Omar brought milk, cheese and yogurt packages to clarify basic nutrition facts behind necessary foods.
Juan Barraza, who’s from Mexico and has been Omar’s student for about a month, said he now finds it easier to understand food labels and quantities.
In addition to explaining contents of food labels, Omar sometimes cooks.
She demonstrates how to cook American meals participants are interested in, as a way to explain the meaning and quantities of different ingredients.
“A lot of the people that we teach don’t have any formal education,” Omar said. “The conventional teaching methods of writing stuff on the board and giving handouts don’t really work.”
Although Omar said she’s created a bond with her students, she faces some challenges.
A few students have strong beliefs that their food choices are healthy, she said.
“Some are open-minded, but others are not willing to change,” she said.
She added that the many food resources in the United States can overwhelm immigrants who may not have had as many choices back home.
“A lot of my students have culture shock when it comes to groceries and the way that it’s made,” she said.
As a native Somalian, Omar said it’s interesting teaching other immigrants about nutrition.
“I don’t think people get tired of sharing stories about food and sharing recipes,” she said.