How to Practice Cultural Humility in the Food System

Learn how to practice cultural humility in foodways, including avoiding cultural appropriation and understanding how to decolonize foodways, with these expert tips from leaders in the field.

The concept of food within a cultural context is fraught with complexity. At its very core, food is sustenance—a collection of micronutrients, macronutrients and chemicals. But, oh, it is so much more! The way in which we, as fellow humans, have eaten since the beginning of time has been shaped by numerous factors over the eons, including our tribes, communities, geography, climate, agriculture, traditions, religions, hardships, politics, economics, colonization and much more. Civilizations were founded on the simple basis of securing food, and over the centuries multiple influences converged to create the diverse food cultures that we see today around the world. From the eating styles of the Sacred Valley in Peru (focused on corn, potatoes, quinoa, and guinea pig) to the food traditions of Morocco (simmered spicy stews cooked in clay tagines and lots of sweet mint-infused green tea) to the traditional diet of Japan (staples include fish, rice, tofu, fermented vegetables, and green tea), the world is filled with glorious eating patterns that have nourished bodies, built communities, and offered joy as people come together to share meals.

Traditional vegetables found in a Tokyo, Japan supermarket.

As a dietitian, I know this firsthand as I work with people who cherish diverse food cultures and traditions. In the past, much emphasis has been placed on cultural competence—the ability to understand and communicate with and interact with people across cultures. That is all good and well, but now it’s time to transcend that knowledge to a higher level of cultural humility, a life-long learning process that involves our continuous self-reflection and self-critique in which we evaluate our core beliefs, values, assumptions, biases, and cultural identities.

It’s also a time to reflect upon the ways we converse about food and nutrition, considering issues like colonization, and its impact on communities’ diets and health outcomes. Another important consideration is addressing the cultural appropriation of foodways, which describes the act of using things from a culture other than your own without showing acknowledgement or respect for that culture. These reflections come at an important time, given our population in the U.S. has become more diverse, our current discourse on diversity and civil rights, and our growing familiarity with global foods and traditions.

I interviewed several experts in the field of food culture in the food system to gain insight into how we can engage in practices that are culturally respectful, humble, and appropriate.

At a farmers market near Bangkok, Thailand.

Beyond Cultural Competency to Cultural Humility

What are some of the primary issues that you should keep in mind as you move beyond cultural competency to cultural humility? According to Deanna Belleny, MPH, RDN, Co-Founder, Diversify Dietetics and public health practitioner in Hartford, Connecticut, you should keep four main things in mind when expanding from cultural competence to cultural humility:

  1. Practicing cultural humility is a lifelong process. It’s more than educating yourself on a person’s culture, customs or food preferences. It requires you to constantly self-reflect, self-critique and become aware of your own values, culture, beliefs, biases and position in the world.
  2. Cultural humility emphasizes that you have something to learn from people. You should prioritize connecting, listening, and learning in interactions.
  3. Cultural humility prioritizes respect. Respecting people as an individual, incorporating preferences, culture, and boundaries and always involving them in any decision making.
  4. Cultural humility requires historical awareness and educating yourself on historical realities and injustices that shape today.

Denine Rogers, MS, RDN, LD, FAND, Chair of National Organization of Blacks in Dietetics and Nutrition (NOBIDAN), integrative and functional dietitian nutritionist with a private practice called Living Healthy, telemedicine nutritional consultant with Anthem, and Co-Chair of the Anthem e-Commerce Committee of APEX (African-American Professional Exchange) explains that we should understand cultural humility is a mindset that allows an individual to be open to other peoples’ preferences by demonstrating respectful inquiry and empathy. Cultural competency is a learning experience about the patterns of behavior, beliefs, language, values, and customs of particular groups. Once we understand other people’s cultures, then we can move on to cultural humility.

Cultural humility and cultural competence can exist together, says Alice Figueroa, MPH, RDN, public health, food writer, and founder of AliceinFoodieland.com. Even if we were trained in a traditional framework that focuses on cultural competence, we can still learn to incorporate aspects of cultural humility into our practice, Figueroa stresses. Traditional education programs teach about cultural competence practices that include adopting attitudes, behaviors, and policies that ensure that institutions and professionals are able to respect cultural differences. “Cultural humility asks to evolve beyond cultural competence and embody a life-long process that requires us to make a commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique about our own biases and prejudices,” says Figueroa.

Food vendor at a public market in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Practicing Cultural Humility in the Food System

Cultural humility encompasses seeing others as individuals, not as a representative collective of a culture, race or ethnicity, says Rogers. She suggests that you should not assume to know everything about people’s cultures, beliefs, including their practices regarding diet, health, and education. “For one example, do not assume that an African American patient with hereditary coronary artery disease eats soul food when they are a healthy vegan. Ask questions to understand better their personal cultural history, experience, and beliefs,” suggests Rogers.

Sherene Chou, MS, RDN, Sustainable Food and Nutrition Consultant puts it simply: Instead of a top down approach, look to the person as the expert in their culture, life and practices. See how you can meet their needs to begin building a foundation for a strong, trusting relationship. Kimberley Greeson, PhD, researcher on biopolitics of endemic species in Hawaii, and professor of sustainability education at Prescott College, adds, “It’s not just about the food, but also the way you approach communities that are not your own. Don’t use a savior approach, but be aware that certain communities might have different needs. Be open to different protocols.” Greeson offers the example of immigrants to the U.S., and the barriers they may face because of policies that make it difficult to grow or have access to familiar foods; they may have to travel very far to get food that is healthy, fresh, and in their culture.

“When working with BIPOC, it is important to know that their views, perceptions, symptoms, culture, and experiences are valid and important,” stresses Figueroa. “Work together and learn from each other. People are the experts when it comes to their personal health history, culture, symptoms, and food preferences.”

Traditional spices at a Marrakesh market in Morocco.

Being Mindful of Cultural Appropriation in the Food World

We also should be mindful of cultural appropriation, which occurs when we take a practice of cultural significance from one group (usually marginalized), and turn it into something that benefits another group (typically dominant), without giving credit, money, or even acknowledgment to the group of origin—ultimately erasing its meaning, says Rogers. From recipe writing to culinary education to cooking videos, there are many opportunities in the food system to wade into these harmful waters.

Belleny suggests that we ask ourselves a series of questions in our areas of practice to avoid cultural appropriation: Is it from another culture that is not our own? Have we done research to understand its origins? Are we giving credit to those origins? Are we being respectful in how we describe or deliver information? Have we engaged with someone who is more familiar with this culture than ourselves? Are we the right people to be bringing this information or creating this recipe or is there an opportunity to amplify someone else’s voice? Rogers suggests a few more questions: Are we influenced by another culture? Have we given recognition to our influences? Are we claiming other’s work as our own?

Rogers says using the term “ethnic” to refer to immigrant and native food cuisines is a classic example of cultural appropriation, which should be replaced with a greater understanding of cultural food history. Describing a region that is large and very diverse, such as “Asian” or “African,” is another example, says Belleny. Instead, learn more about the food history. Rogers shares an example of one deeper understanding of cultural food history: Slaves in the Caribbean often had to subsist on dried fish since they were denied the opportunity to catch fresh fish, thus many traditional Caribbean dishes are based on salt cod, such as Jamaican saltfish and ackee.

“Avoid generalizing people, customs, and food names by broad cultural categories, says Chou. “This assumes that cultures, races, ethnic groups are monoliths without understanding the people or the cultures behind them and allowing the lack of distinction as a method of erasure.”

A vendor preparing traditional cooked maize in the Sacred Valley of Peru.

A specific area to focus on is recipe development. “It is important to always acknowledge and recognize when recipes are adapted or inspired by BIPOC cultural recipes and food traditions. When you use ingredients that are native to a particular culture it is essential to learn the history of the ingredients and to share that history,” says Figueroa. She offers an example of creating a chickpea curry with coconut milk that is inspired by South Indian cooking; it is important to acknowledge that you were inspired by Kerala, South India food traditions. Or when we talk about eating cornbread and squash during the holidays, we can educate about the importance of corn and squash to Native American and indigenous communities. “We can make sure that people are aware of the crucial role BIPOC communities played in shaping our food system and enriching the foods available for use to eat,” says Figueroa.

Sherene Chou adds that in recipe writing and culinary education, we can show cultural appreciation. “People often eliminate the culture and take their own twist, leaving out critical information that can be a learning and teaching moment. When describing a cultural dish, take time to learn about the history and culture and showcase how foods are traditionally grown, prepared, and consumed. This is an opportunity to celebrate culture.” Greeson adds, “Don’t pretend you discovered it; instead shift to expanding on its history and ethnobotany. There are examples of ingredients that people are profiting from, without fully understanding its cultural sacredness, which minimizes its significance.

Greeson stresses that if you know better, you can do better, adding, “Admit that you’ve done cultural appropriation, own it, move on, and learn.” She explains that it is a really thin line between cultural appreciation and appropriation. “It comes down to the idea of power—if folks in power of a majority identity are using traditional knowledge of other foods from a marginalized or oppressed community, or ripping it off and not giving credit to it, that’s appropriation. For example, a lot of foods in my Chinese culture are appropriated; Chinese medicine was demonized, but now it’s in vogue and popular in the Western community. Now it’s become acceptable and monetized.”

One way you can address the issue is to bring someone in, whether it’s a chef, expert, or BIPOC dietitian, rather than claiming that expertise. “Don’t come across as an expert in a different food culture. It’s great to talk about history and how it’s been modified and what your interpretation is, but refer to experts that have a platform. Pass the mic rather than speak for other people; bring in other voices and highlight them. Use that commodity and capital and share it,” adds Greeson.

Learning About Decolonizing Foodways

With a greater understanding of food culture and history, comes a greater appreciation for how indigenous food traditions have been altered due to colonization. “Decolonizing foodways is an essential practice because the colonization of indigenous communities has stripped them of their power and has created a deepening reliance on the government for survival,” says Rogers.

Greeson encourages us to look at issues of food sovereignty and ways to re-envision foodways to address issues like land, culture, and health issues. She adds, “We, as settlers, have forcibly displaced many indigenous people of this country. In the shifting of the Cherokee from the Southeast to Oklahoma, for example, cultural foods shifted; they couldn’t can’t rely on traditional foods and received foods from the government. For the Navajo, fry bread became popular. In Hawaii, spam became popular because the government gave it to people to eat. This is an issue about reclaiming a connection to the land, traditional ways of growing food; relationships to food, land access, land health, and ecosystems; and native health, spiritual and mental well-being.”

Traditional dish with pureed beans served in Chile.

The first step in decolonizing foodways so that you may be more effective at providing support for BIPOC communities is to acknowledge the impact of colonization, imperialism and slavery on issues like food access, malnutrition, food insecurity, and overall health, stresses Figueroa. She also notes that we may have shortcomings, since our personal and professional experiences—even nutrition research—are influenced by institutions that are a product of colonization. 

One way to better understand this concept is to look at the history of the foodways in indigenous communities. Rodgers shares the story of Native American Indians on reservations. “In 1890, the federal government decided to restrict Native Americans Indians from leaving their reservations to hunt, fish, or gather local foods—all traditional ways of procuring their food. Instead, they received an allotment of food from the government. These rations were all nutritionally empty foods like sugar, flour, and lard. Over time, processed foods high in sugar and white flour became the norm in Native communities. This one oppressive act altered the future health of all Native Americans. Currently, there is a surge of learning, teaching, and implementing Native American Indians’ cultural foods dishes in some of the reservations in order to reverse the health disparities that continue in these communities.”

This issue can be countered by learning the traditional foodways of indigenous communities. Figueroa encourages dietitians to make nutrition more culturally humble and to take into account the perspectives, stories, recipes, food traditions, eating preferences, and experiences of BIPOC.

Traditional foods in a stand in Puerto Rico.

Putting Cultural Humility into Practice

In what areas in the food system should we be particularly mindful of cultural humility? One area is the way diverse cultural foods are portrayed. Figueroa suggests that we be careful not to portray foods from diverse cultures as “greasy”, “dirty”, or “unhealthy”. Thus, the term “clean” eating can be troublesome in this respect. The idea that we need to take a Chinese, Indian Ethiopian, Egyptian, Mexican or Guatemalan recipe and make it “clean” in order for it to be health-supportive implies that it is intrinsically dirty and unhealthy, says Figueroa. Rogers notes that some may say that soul food dishes are very unhealthy, but if someone learned its history, they would appreciate how African Americans survived with very little that was given to them during slavery. 

Ironically, many of the “superfoods” that the wellness and nutrition world cherish are indigenous foods, says Figueroa. “Likewise, we should understand that indigenous and black communities developed the agricultural, farming, and cooking practices and traditions that make it possible for us to enjoy nutritious foods like quinoa, cacao, chia seeds, moringa, açai berries, sacha inchi, maca, amaranth, and lucuma, among others. It is important for us to be leaders in the food system who seek solutions on how to responsibly and sustainably consume these delicious and nutritious indigenous foods while honoring and supporting indigenous communities.”

Even how we consider “healthism” is an opportunity to cultivate cultural humility. “Healthism is essentially the belief that individuals are ultimately responsible for their health and they should pursue health because it’s the right thing to do. The same could be said about what American culture has deemed as a ‘healthy diet’. The spaces that create these rules are often not diverse and inclusive, from research and academic spaces to media and communications. What is deemed healthy comes with a fare share of bias. Let’s be critical of the information we take in, let’s do more listening and less instructing, let’s center and uplift the voices and experiences of people, and let’s advocate for social justice because there is so much more to health than food and physical activity,” says Belleny.

Greeson adds that we may need to rethink what we learned in school, which is based on a Western paradigm of thinking, and that the nutrition models might not be reflective of genetics from some communities, with strong tradition and culture. For example, Greeson shares the example of being open to traditions in her own Chinese American culture, such as the use of herbs and certain foods. “Look at the complexities of diabetes in minoritized populations, where policies forced them to relocate and exist on government-rationed food. How can we create pathways to food sovereignty, were people can be in charge of their own food, and how dietitians can work within that framework?” It’s also important to consider that in some cultures, foods like cheeseburgers, alcohol, and dairy products weren’t in their diets so long ago, and that we should be mindful of genetics.

Rogers also reminds us to be mindful of the lack of access to certain foods. People in urban areas often have no access to fresh food because it may be a food desert, with no grocery stores available. Likewise, rural residents in the agricultural areas may not be able to afford to buy the same food they can harvest.

Local fruits and vegetables at a stand in Puerto Rico.

Top Tips for Practicing Cultural Humility

These experts provide the following tips for practicing cultural humility in the food system.

  • Do more to understand historical perspectives related to food and healthcare.
  • Learn about BIPOC food traditions, recipes, cooking, ingredients, and food preferences and find a way to respectfully incorporate them into your knowledge and practice.
  • Do less instructing and more listening in order to center others’ voices.
  • Start engaging in a discussion by questioning and identifying cultural, family values, and beliefs.
  • Begin analyzing our own personal biases and assumptions about people with different values than ourselves.
  • Own up to how our privilege allows us to truly connect with communities we serve and find a way to respect their challenges, pain, and struggles and how it can impact their health.
  • Accept our mistakes, shortcomings, and biases.
  • Make it an essential part of our food and nutrition philosophy to learn from BIPOC professionals and to hear the challenges and concerns that they face in this field.
  • Celebrate BIPOC food traditions by sharing the beauty of diverse food traditions.
  • Develop culturally humble food materials, making sure that the recommendations are respectful and relevant to the BIPOC patients and clients. Create a simple survey to get feedback from the community to learn about their food culture, ask for recipes their families cook, take part in professional development by BIPOC professionals, and cook recipes from cookbooks created by BIPOC.
Traditional foods in a market in Belize.

Resources for Cultural Humility and Knowledge:

Written by Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN

Photos by Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN

Image: Gado-Gado

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