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Kelly Luu, a junior nutritional sciences and Asian languages and cultures major, gives a presentation about matcha, a fine powder made from special green tea leaves, as part of a class project for Nutri Sci 377: Cultural Aspects of Food and Nutrition, an online course, in summer 2020. For the assignment, Luu made a honey matcha castella cake. Image by Michael P. King/UW–Madison CALS.

How does the American ideal of healthy eating exclude other cultures? That was the question posed to students by University of Wisconsin–Madison instructor Erika Anna in a creative writing exercise called “six-word stories.”

“Eurocentric diets promoted over others’ cultures,” one student wrote.

“Only American foods represented as healthy,” wrote another.

A third put it more bluntly: “Others feel their food is bad.”

It gets to the heart of what students explore in Nutri Sci 377: Cultural Aspects of Food and Nutrition. It began as an online summer term course in 2019 and was a fall semester offering for the first time in 2020.

“We have a workforce of food and nutrition professionals that is mostly white and identifying as female,” says Anna, a registered dietician and assistant faculty associate in the UW–Madison Department of Nutritional Sciences. “As a result, curriculum for students, nutrition education for patients and communities, and health care practice are largely developed through a singular lens, and lacking broad cultural relevance. I knew going into course development that my role would largely be as a conduit for diverse voices, research, media, and resources.”

A host of collaborators from across the nation lend their expertise to the course throughout the semester, thanks to a grant from the UW Division of Continuing Studies. This gives students an opportunity to see many different dietitians and food and nutrition professionals as the leaders and innovators they are within the field, Anna says.

At the start of the semester, students examine how implicit bias, microaggressions, and the ideology of racial colorblindness influence human interactions. This portion is led by Teresa Turner, a nutritionist with Army Child and Youth Services at Fort Meade and a past chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The course doesn’t stop there. Anna and co-instructor Amber Haroldson help students explore the food preferences and cultures of Indigenous people, Latin Americans, Black and African Americans, and the religiously observant. YaQutullah Ibraheem Muhammad, a clinical dietician with the Veterans Administration and chair of the nutrition academy’s Religion Member Interest Group, talks to students about halal and haram foods, nutritional considerations for fasting during Ramadan, and the Five Pillars of Islam.

The class also dives deeper into federal food assistance programs (SNAP, WIC, and FDPIR) and how well they work — or don’t work — for those they serve. The programs have added culturally relevant items to lists of approved foods, but the extent of that can vary regionally, and requesting added traditional foods can be a lengthy process.

“WIC, SNAP-Ed, and FDPIR include nutrition education along with food packages,” notes Anna. “But if the education delivered isn’t culturally relevant or ignores or violates cultural beliefs, practices, or customs, it could lead to a complete rejection of essential health care information.”

The course satisfies UW–Madison’s ethnic studies general education requirement and is the lead course in We Are What We Eat: Food and Identity, a CALS-based First-Year Interest Group. It is available to all students regardless of major or college.

Ayda Mohd Ayob is a senior dietetics major from Perak, Malaysia, and is also pursuing a certificate in business management through CALS. She hopes to earn the registered dietician credential and become a clinical dietician in the United States. For Ayda, the biggest takeaway from the course was embracing a mindset of “cultural humility.”

“There’s always something we don’t know about other people or cultures,” she explains. “It’s definitely okay to not know all of it. But try to ask, become more open-minded in approaching people and understanding things of importance.”

For the course’s final project, students choose a food, dish, or ingredient; research its cultural and nutritional significance; cook with it; and consider how easily ingredients could be procured under a food assistance program.

Ayda selected cassava, a tropical tuberous root that can be baked or fried and is often processed into a flour and tapioca. Although she became familiar with it while growing up in Asia, her research taught her how widespread cassava is globally, including in parts of Africa and its native Latin America. She notes how the cultural history of the Makushi people in Guyana is intimately linked to the crop.

Marie Shoemaker, a senior from Milwaukee majoring in food science, chose the “three sisters” — a combination of corn, beans, and squash grown and sometimes eaten together by numerous Indigenous groups of North America. The trio’s synergy goes beyond their time in the soil, Shoemaker notes. Nutritionally, the individual foods compensate for the others’ essential amino acid deficiencies to form a complete protein profile — perfect for vegetarians or when animal protein is scarce.

“Together they work like a family,” she says. “They’re stronger together.”

Anna relishes the students’ transformation over the course of the semester. “Students who, early on, report that health status is largely determined by an individual later identify that there are many social, political, and environmental influencers determining an individual’s health,” she says. “It’s been really wonderful to see their worldview expand into more of a systems-level thinking.”