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Eliminating Barriers to Healthy Eating for East African and Somali Community Members in Saint Cloud – Sahan Journal

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Central Minnesota Community Empowerment Organization (CMCEO) is on mission to eliminate barriers to healthy eating and increase the availability of culturally relevant foods for East African and Somalian community members in Saint Cloud Minnesota. CMCEO is a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering immigrant communities and people of color in Central Minnesota. CMCEO aims to address social, economic, and educational inequities faced by these communities and advance their collective well-being, health, and self-sufficiency.

East African and Somali community members face unique challenges in accessing healthy, affordable, and culturally relevant food in Saint Cloud. Language barriers, limited Halal products, lack of accessible transportation and the high cost of fresh foods contribute to food insecurity for community members. According to Mohamed Goni, Executive Director of CMCEO, “our communities face many barriers from language, technology, and drastic changes in the environment. Nutrition facts and other health information can be difficult for our communities to make well-informed decisions. The new environment our community members find themselves in is a huge barrier to being healthy and our traditional foods that grow in hot environments are not well suited to the winters of Minnesota.”

With support from the Center for Prevention’s Food Justice Funding Initiative, CMCEO is working to empower community members to learn about healthy food choices, preserve cultural traditions related to food and health, and increase the availability of healthy and culturally appropriate foods. Driven by direct input from community members on what is needed to create healthy change, CMCEO is using a multifaceted approach that incorporates education, policy change, and community engagement to advance food justice.

Access to healthy food is not only essential for health, but a matter of equity and justice. CMCEO believes that everyone should enjoy access to nourishing, affordable, and culturally appropriate food. “Food Justice encompasses more than just access to food; it is fundamental to individual identity, dignity, fairness, economic accessibility, cultural, and continuity. It entails having the autonomy and control to make choices about what, why, when, where, and how one eats,” said Mohamid Goni. For many community members, being able eat cultural foods in a traditional style is key to health and well-being. According to a Somali elder who participates in events and activities hosted by CMCEO, “the manner in which I consume food, such as using my hands, answers one aspect of achieving food justice.”

Centering culture, identity, and belonging is central to all CMCEO’s work. In addition to advocating for greater availability of culturally appropriate food choices at both local East African and mainstream grocery stores, CMCEO is also working to increase access to land for growing food. CMCEO is currently advocating to make unutilized community land accessible to members of the East African community in three local counties. This would support individuals and families to grow culturally appropriate produce and reduce the financial burden of purchasing all of their fresh vegetables at the grocery store.

Staff members at CMCEO are also exploring ways to support local farmers to introduce Halal meat production. Currently, Halal meat is primarily sourced from outside the United States from countries such as Brazil, Australia, and India. Having local suppliers of Halal meat would not only increase the availability but would bolster the local economy and increase job opportunities.

Community education and health classes have been instrumental in creating greater awareness of nutrition, addressing language barriers, and improving health literacy.  Many community members are not fully aware of food assistance programs, community gardens, farmers’ markets, and other initiatives that can support access to healthy and affordable foods. Community outreach efforts help to bridge this information gap and support individuals to make informed choices. By embracing culture as a source of strength, CMCEO is creating meaningful and sustainable changes to achieve equitable food access. “Food Justice is a fundamental necessity and inherent right of all peoples,” said Mohamid Goni. “We are advancing racial and health equity by specifically supporting communities that have been disproportionately affected by food insecurity and inequities in the food system.”

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