Project Update: Community Food Resource Guide for International Newcomers in Ithaca, NY

Emily Morgan, an alumna of the Fulbright U.S. Student Program to Australia, is using her U.S. Alumni TIES Small Grant to address gaps in newcomers’ access to Ithaca, New York’s food and nutrition resources. Through her highly community-based efforts, Emily plans to create and disseminate a Community Food Resource Guide for the international newcomers in her community to find foods that are not only nutritious, but familiar and culturally relevant to their families.

You can see the work from other U.S. Alumni TIES Small Grant winners from the seminar “The New Frontiers of Global Public Health” here.

You have just arrived in a new place. Where are you going to get dinner?

The search for a nutritious and comforting meal in a new environment is an experience common to all exchange alumni. Food security, as defined by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, is the condition in which all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. Moving to a new environment can have significant yet uncertain impacts on food security. The project Participatory Development of a Community Resource Guide for International Newcomers in Ithaca, NY aims to tackle this issue in one region of upstate New York in collaboration with the organization Ithaca Welcomes Refugees (IWR).

IWR is a volunteer-led community initiative that was developed in 2015 to foster a welcoming and fair environment for refugees and at-risk immigrants in the Ithaca area. IWR’s work includes providing individuals and families with basic needs support, community and cultural orientation, and financial assistance, as well as providing community education on refugee and immigrant issues and training for volunteers. Although Ithaca has many local resources to support food and nutrition security, IWR recognized from a growing number of queries related to hunger and food access that there was a gap in information available to immigrants about the community’s food-related assets.

With a small grant from the US Department of State’s U.S. Alumni TIES program, we are working to fill this gap by developing a guide to help orient international newcomers to the community’s available food resources. From the beginning, we knew that we wanted to take an approach that directly engaged members of the international community in visualizing and actualizing a guide that met their needs and preferences. With this in mind, we designed an action research project that applies the principles of participatory asset mapping, where community members take the lead in identifying assets and shaping the nature of the guide.

We began our work in summer 2017 with interviews with four local service providers who support Ithaca’s immigrant community. We talked to these key stakeholders about the populations that they serve and the types of food-related information they are asked about and provide. We also used these meetings to solicit suggestions for the design of the guide.

Following these helpful interviews, we have held seven exciting and informative focus groups with 45 members of Ithaca’s international community. Participants in the focus groups came from 15 different countries and told us about the foods their families enjoy; if, how, and where they access those foods in Ithaca; and types of information they think would be helpful for people who move to Ithaca from other countries. While the focus groups were invaluable for helping us gather information needed to make a useful guide, one of our favorite aspects was the sharing that happened between participants in the groups. New ideas were exchanged about how to save money, find the freshest ingredients, and access culturally appropriate foods. Several participants made plans to share a meal or go on a joint shopping trip following the focus group. It has been a joy to see this generation of shared awareness and community cohesion.

This month, we are reviewing and summarizing what we have learned and preparing to hold a series of workshops where we will invite local food system stakeholders and members of the international community to map local food assets. We will combine the knowledge we gain with data collected through the focus groups and interviews to develop a draft of the community food resource guide. We look forward to continuing this journey and building a tool that can help bring nutrition, comfort, and peace of mind to new community members.

Written and contributed by Emily Morgan.

Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminars (Alumni TIES) are regionally focused seminars for alumni of U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs.