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Ohio food pantries offer new Americans a taste of home with culturally-appropriate staples

A Black woman holds four green vegetables in one hand. Her other is inside a box. A bag of food sits open in the foreground.
Alejandro Figueroa
Rachel Niyonsaba, the project manager at the Dayton Equity Center, packing a bag of food at the McKinley church food pantry.

It’s six in the afternoon and Rachel Niyonsaba is packing two dozen bags with food in the back corner of a church basement.

“I started with some fresh zucchinis, some green peppers, red onions. We have some peanut flour,” Niyonsaba said.

The pantry is lined with wooden shelves built by Niyonsaba’s colleagues, stocked with emergency food staples like bread and cereal. Each bag Niyonsaba packs will end up with about $100 worth of groceries, and around 20 families will pick them up the next day.

“They're coming from all walks of lives from East Africa and West from Eastern Europe, as well as Latin America,” Niyonsaba said.

Those culinary traditions vary, so Niyonsaba and her colleagues at the Dayton Equity Center pack the bags with food that’s common across the cultures. The nonprofit operates under the umbrella of the McKinley United Methodist Church in West Dayton. It connects refugees and immigrants with community resources, including food.

Studies show immigrant families are at a higher risk of food insecurity. The reasons are many: language barriers, a lack of transportation, income instability due to few employment opportunities. Some refugees might not be eligible for SNAP benefits at first, either.

So they rely on traditional food pantries like the one at the McKinley Church. It opened in 2020 at the peak of the pandemic for anyone who needed it in the community. But the food typically on offer might not be the food immigrant families are used to cooking or eating, Niyonsaba said.

“A lot of them would be thankful that they received food. But at the same time, they just were like, ‘I don't know what to make this with. I'm not familiar with the taste. I don't know what's going on,’” Niyonsaba said.

So The Equity Center began offering cultural-specific foodstuffs in August after they got a grant from the Dayton Foundation and the Dayton Foodbank. The group is still in the pilot phase.

A growing idea

While the idea isn’t necessarily new, it can be hard to pull off, Carrie Harshbarger, director of special programs at the Ohio Association of Food Banks, said.

“Particularly when we're talking about culturally appropriate foods, you know, these can be things that are challenging to source, to source domestically, let alone locally.” Harshbarger said.

Dayton isn’t the only Ohio community with this sort of program. In Northeast Ohio the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank started offering a similar service for Middle-East, South Asian and Latino immigrants, and a food bank in Lorain runs another one.

They’ve done that in part with funding from the Ohio CAN program — which launched late last year. It’s a partnership between the state's department of agriculture and the association of food banks that allows the agency to purchase produce or meat from smaller, historically underrepresented regional producers.

Katie Carver, vice president at the Akron regional food bank, said supply chain logistics and language barriers can sometimes pose a challenge for these types of services. Still, she said it’s becoming a more common service across Ohio.

“There's more visibility to the strength that they [immigrants] bring to the community. And we want to care for everyone that lives in our community,” Carver said. “We want to make sure that we're providing nutritious food and food that people want and that they will eat.”

Increased need

Culturally relevant food pantries come at a time when food banks are seeing sustained high demand post-pandemic.

“When people are going through so much already, giving them a reminder of home and foods that are familiar to them is just providing the dignity that I think every human deserves to have.” Harshbarger said.

Back at the church basement, it’s distribution day. The basement is busy with workers and volunteers helping people fill out paperwork or carrying bags and carts of food out to their cars.

One of the people stopping by is Mignonne Abagirinka. She’s from Central Africa. Taking a peek at the contents of her bag, she points out the cassava flour and plantain — ingredients for a classic African dish.

“You see, I have fufu here. You cook it with vegetables you can make soup with. It’s really good,” Abagirinka said.

Though it's not the same, Abagirinka said she’ll eat American food, because buying imported foods from international markets isn’t cheap.

“Especially when you are a single mom like me and you have to work, take care of yourself, your bills,” Abagirinka said.

She said she always cooked with her mom and her aunties. And continuing that tradition here is a way to hold on to those memories.

“We used to cook beans. It's like culture. You have to eat every meal with beans, fufu. It's like everyday food for me. And when I don't have it, I didn't eat.” Abagirinka said.

Alejandro Figueroa covers food insecurity and the business of food for Ohio Newsroom member station WYSO.