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Anthropological perspectives on migration, food and nutrition

Preparing injera, a transnational Ethiopian dietary staple

With the permission of the editors of Anthropology News, we republish SAFN’s monthly news column from that publication.  This is the May 2011 column, edited by Kenneth Maes and Alyson Young.

In this column we highlight a recently published NAPA Bulletin (vol 34), “Anthropological Perspectives on Migration and Health,” edited by SAFN President Craig Hadley. Articles in this volume address the diet and nutrition of various migrant groups that navigate complex and changing cultural, political and economic contexts.

Hadley’s introduction underlines that interactions between migration and health are highly complex. Anthropologists and allied health professionals have struggled with this complexity, hindered by the use of categorizations that obscure the heterogeneity between and within migrant populations; by imprecise proxy measures of acculturation, which are unable to specify mechanisms by which migration can impact health; and by too often focusing on the health impacts of individual-level agency and group-level cultural norms rather than on social inequalities and public policies that limit access to wealth and information.

Heide Castañeda provides a theoretical and methodological overview, asking what larger anthropological questions can be advanced by studying migrant health. She notes that the study of migrant health highlights global inequities related to labor and health care. The study of migration and health also encourages a rethinking of borders, connections and identities, and ideally forces anthropologists to consider how the knowledge they produce affects study participants and serves certain political agendas. Castañeda asserts that widespread reliance on charity clinics, volunteerism and humanitarian efforts for providing migrants with health care reflects that societies have become accustomed to inequality, and that states are unwilling to address “conflicting economic and political demands related to the continued need for certain forms of migrant labor” (p 20).

SAFN Treasurer Crystal Patil and colleagues report on exploratory ethnographic study of food access and diet among refugee groups of various African and Asian countries resettled in Midwestern US cities. The authors note that refugees face many challenges and opportunities as they transition from low-income contexts characterized by high mortality and low reliance on processed foods to high-income contexts characterized by low mortality and high reliance processed foods. Their ethnographic data suggest multiple ways in which “health and well-being are produced and eroded on arrival in the United States” (p 155), involving interactions among the resources and services available within environments of resettlement, migration geopolitics, the influences of peers, resettlement agencies and ethnocultural norms, as well as individual characteristics and household socioeconomic status.

Ramona Pérez, Margaret Handley and James Grieshop provide an account of the political, economic and nutritional implications of lead-contaminated ceramic cookware produced in Oaxaca, Mexico. This cookware is sent along with food care packages to migrant families in Monterey County, California through envios. In the late 1990s, the cookware was linked to lead toxicity resulting in gastrointestinal distress, severe headaches and malaise, which were detected among Mexican-American children seeking care at public clinics in Monterey County. In California, the public policy response was to conduct unannounced health inspections on businesses thought to be involved in the envios system, to confiscate food items and threaten to fine the businesses. This approach was perceived as akin to racial profiling and discrimination and drove some envios underground. In Mexico, the policy response has been largely nonexistent because Mexican officials do not consider lead exposure a significant problem. In addition, the Mexican state cannot afford to provide ceramic-producing communities with resources necessary for production techniques that do not require lead. Faced with these sensitive political and economic challenges, Pérez and colleagues decided that one way to address the health impacts of lead exposure was through nutritional programming in both Oaxaca and California. Promoting diets rich in calcium and iron can prevent the rapid absorption of lead. While this approach does not eliminate the problem, it “provides profound opportunity for a healthier life despite the lack of intervention by Mexican government officials and absence of community based health programming by health officials in the Monterey area” (p 120).

Other food and nutrition-focused articles in the volume include Horton and Barker’s on the diets and oral health statuses of Mexican immigrants and their children in California’s Central Valley; Dharod and Croom’s on the prevalence of child hunger among Somali refugee households in Lewiston, Maine; and Trapp’s on the implementation of the USDA and Office of Refugee Resettlement Food and Nutrition Outreach program.

Please send your news and items of interest to Kenneth Maes or Alyson Young.

Posted by Kenneth Maes.

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