Integrating culturally responsive practices into community-engaged work

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In January, the Harvard Radcliffe Institute invited Dr. Jessica Fanzo, Professor of Climate and Director of the Food for Humanity Initiative at Columbia University, to lead a talk called “Using Evidence and Data to Illuminate Our Food Systems” (1). I was very glad to attend, especially because her research findings expanded my understanding of food supply chains, health inequities fueled by climate change, and the importance of data to inform decision-making at the policy level. Dr. Fanzo highlighted how the inaccessibility of healthy food options and the erosion of local and traditional food systems have generated an alarmingly vast scale of malnutrition and poor nutritional outcomes in contexts like Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. One of the most interesting elements of the talk was a dashboard that Dr. Fanzo shared that consolidates data from various sources and illustrates the current landscape of food systems across the world.

Dr. Fanzo’s talk prompted me to reflect on the importance of being culturally responsive to people’s dietary needs. I thought about an experience I had as an undergraduate student volunteer providing healthy eating workshops for low-income elementary school-aged students. At the onset of this volunteer experience, the students disliked or were unfamiliar with the recipes the student group and I prepared, so they became less engaged in the workshops. One day, after the students described the food they ate at home, I realized that the recipes we selected were not culturally familiar or relevant to them. We were imposing our own perceptions of healthy eating onto these students, without listening to their preferences. This experience taught me about the ethical responsibility to lead with cultural humility and listen to directly impacted groups before taking action.

This volunteer experience, as well as Dr. Fanzo’s research findings, led me to think more about ICH’s evaluation of the No Kid Hungry initiative. No Kid Hungry’s public charge initiative funded 18 community-based organizations in four border states to support their efforts to increase food security in immigrant communities and mitigate the adverse impacts of the 2019 public charge ruling (the anti-immigrant public charge policy led millions of immigrants to forgo Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits out of fear that they would be classified as a public charge, which could result in denial of a visa or green card). The Leah Zallman Center for Immigrant Health Research (LZC) at ICH partnered with No Kid Hungry to understand the strategies that grantees employed to get food on the tables of immigrant families and increase enrollment in public benefits like SNAP and WIC.

One of the key findings from our evaluation was that trust-building is critical in order to reduce fear around applying for and enrolling in public benefits. Providing culturally responsive services and fresh and culturally familiar food to immigrant families helped forge trust between them and staff at community-based organizations. By connecting immigrant families to garden projects to meet cultural and dietary needs, offering bilingual services, and hiring staff with similar lived experiences and backgrounds, organizations were able to make immigrant families feel more comfortable. 

Being able to draw parallels between what I learned as a student volunteer and my professional experience with the No Kid Hungry evaluation has been tremendously rewarding. Dr. Fanzo’s research reinforced that there is immense value in systems that embrace cultural responsiveness and center the self-determination and agency of communities. I am excited to dive deeper into learnings about cultural responsiveness as I engage with people that carry a unique set of lived experiences and identities in my work at ICH. 

Read more about our evaluation findings on the No Kid Hungry initiative here.

  1. https://www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/event/2024-jessica-fanzo-lecture-virtual

Ben Goldberg

Research Associate