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University of Minnesota Extension

Extension > Source - Spring/Summer 2008 > Healthy eating in a new land for Somali immigrants

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Healthy eating in a new land for Somali immigrants

Extension nutrition educators use hands-on approach to bridge Somali culture and American society

Home to an estimated 70,000 Somalis, Minnesota claims the largest Somali population in the United States. Like other recent immigrants with limited resources and busy lives, many of the state's Somali families are struggling to find middle ground between affordable, nutritious food and quick, easy preparation.

Nimo Yusuf

Nutrition education assistant Nimo Yusuf teaches healthy eating habits to immigrant populations based in Hennepin County through Extension's Simply Good Eating Program.

The traditional Somali diet is a healthy one, but sticking to it proved difficult when the Somalis fled their war-torn country. Getting back on track required help from someone with knowledge of Somali cuisine.

Ilhan Omar and Nimo Yusuf are two of more than 100 nutrition education assistants who teach healthy eating habits through Extension's Nutrition Education Program in community centers across the state. Using the University of Minnesota Extension curriculum, the pair help fill the needs of the Somali community and other new immigrants in Hennepin County.

"There is a great need here for people who know the Somali language and understand the culture," says Shelley Sherman, an Extension health and nutrition educator based in the Twin Cities.

In less than two years with Extension, Omar and Yusuf have worked with nearly 1,000 participants—about half Somali— teaching them to create nutritious meals on a tight budget. They also help families work through new challenges: children who embrace Americans' affinity for fast food and sugar, encouraging and teaching men to cook as their wives join the workforce, and resolving issues that surface when dealing with Muslim dietary restrictions in a foreign land.

"Muslims don't consume pork products, and people get their information by word of mouth," says Omar. "We do the research to tell them what contains pork byproducts and what doesn't. We are not going to change beliefs they've built up their whole life, but we can share information about how things can work for them in America." Yusuf agrees. "We see ourselves as the bridge between Somali culture and American society: We are in the middle, holding both hands," she says. "It's a good feeling."

For more information about University of Minnesota Extension nutrition education programs, visit

How do recent immigrants learn about healthy American foods?


Extension teaches the Simply Good Eating Program to families from many immigrant backgrounds, using an adapted English Language Learner (ELL) version of the curriculum. One partner in this effort is the Winnetka Learning Center in New Hope.

Ilhan Omar

Extension nutrition education assistant Ilhan Omar and participant Sirad Muse do the math to find the healthiest product for the best price.

"One of our goals is to help our English language learners function well in American society," says Susan Farmer, who teaches at the center. "Eating healthy and nutritious food is a part of that."

There is no need to make a choice between addressing language skills and healthy eating, Farmer says. "Ilhan Omar makes it easy for language learners to understand the information while learning English vocabulary. Having a University representative who understands nutrition and can relate to our participants is a real boost to our program."

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