It’s six in the afternoon and Rachel Nyonsaba packed two dozen bags of food in the back corner of a church basement.
“I started with some fresh zucchini, some green peppers, red onions. We have some groundnut flour,” Nyonsaba said.
The pantry is lined with wooden shelves made by Niyonsaba’s colleagues, stocked with emergency food staples like bread and cereal. Each bag packed by Niyonsaba will end up with about $100 worth of food items, and about 20 families will pick them up the next day.
“They come from all walks of life from East Africa and West from Eastern Europe as well as Latin America,” Nyonsaba said.
These culinary traditions differ, so Nyonsaba and her colleagues at the Dayton Equity Center pack the bags with food that is common to different cultures. The nonprofit organization operates under the auspices of McKinley United Methodist Church in West Dayton. It connects refugees and immigrants to community resources, including food.
Studies show that immigrant families are at higher risk of food insecurity. The reasons are many: language barriers, lack of transportation, income instability due to few job opportunities. Some refugees also may not be eligible for SNAP benefits to begin with.
So they rely on traditional food pantries like the one at McKinley Church. It opened its doors in 2020 at the height of the pandemic to anyone who needed it in the community. But the food typically offered may not be the food immigrant families are used to cooking or eating, Nyonsaba said.
“Many of them would be grateful to receive food. But at the same time, they just said, “I don’t know what to do with this. I am not familiar with the taste. I don’t know what’s going on,” Nyonsaba said.
So The Equity Center began offering culturally specific food items in August after receiving a grant from the Dayton Foundation and the Dayton Foodbank. The group is still in the pilot phase.
An evolving idea
While the idea isn’t necessarily new, it can be difficult to pull off, said Carrie Harshbarger, director of special programs at the Ohio Food Bank Association.
“Especially when we’re talking about culturally appropriate foods, you know, those can be things that are challenging to source, to source domestically, let alone locally,” Harshbarger said.
Dayton isn’t the only Ohio community with a similar program. In Northeast Ohio, the Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank has begun offering a similar service for Middle Eastern, South Asian and Latino immigrants, and a food bank in Lorain operates another.
They did so in part with funding from Ohio’s CAN program, which launched late last year. It’s a partnership between the state Department of Agriculture and the Food Bank Association that allows the agency to purchase produce or meat from smaller, historically underrepresented regional producers.
Katie Carver, vice president of the Akron Regional Food Bank, said supply chain logistics and language barriers can sometimes present challenges for this type of service. Still, she said it’s becoming an increasingly common service in Ohio.
“There is more visibility of the force than they do [immigrants] brought to the community. And we want to take care of everyone who lives in our community,” Carver said. “We want to make sure we’re providing nutritious food and food that people want and will eat.”
The culturally relevant food pantries come at a time when food banks are seeing sustained high demand after the pandemic.
“When people are already going through so much, reminding them of home and the foods that are familiar to them is just providing the dignity that I think every person deserves to have,” Harshbarger said.
Back in the basement of the church, it’s handing out day. The basement is busy with workers and volunteers helping people fill out paperwork or carry bags and carts of food to their cars.
One of the people stopping by is Mignonne Abagirinka. She is from Central Africa. Peering into the contents of her bag, she points to cassava flour and plantains, ingredients for a classic African dish.
“You see, I have a fufu here. You cook it with vegetables that you can make soup with. He’s really good,” Abagirinka said.
Although it’s not the same, Abagirinka said she will eat American food because buying imported food from international markets is not cheap.
“Especially when you’re a single mother like me and you have to work, take care of yourself, take care of your bills,” Abagirinka said.
She said she always cooks with her mother and aunts. And continuing that tradition here is a way to preserve those memories.
“We cooked beans. It’s like a culture. You have to eat every meal with beans, fufu. It’s like a daily meal for me. And since I don’t have it, I haven’t eaten.” Abagirinka said.