Food Insecurity in the US - Person Eating French Fries

How Do You Combat Language and Cultural Barriers to Food Access?

Nonprofits cover a wide variety of human services. In the United States, the presence and causes of food insecurity among populations in need is one such area of focus. Lack of food access and barriers to healthy eating are often faced by limited English immigrant populations. Thus language barriers, compounded with socioeconomic status and education, create the need for long term, linguistically sensitive strategies to combat food insecurity in the US.

Addressing Food Insecurity in the US

Food Insecurity in the US - Colorful VegetablesOne of our frequent clients is a growing nonprofit in Boston. Their mission?

Collecting food, that would otherwise be wasted, and distributing it to those in need in the community. Often times, due to the city’s and surrounding area’s relatively diverse population, this includes recent immigrants and refugees to the United States.

And they’re not the only ones – organizations from 412 Food Rescue in Pennsylvania to Food Cycle in London England focus on reducing food insecurity in vulnerable populations via sustainable and waste reduction methods.

Language and cultural differences are broadly known to be barriers adversely affecting immigrants and refugees to the United States, and they both play a role in food insecurity among these populations.

For example, if an individual is not familiar with certain foods, and has little available information about them in their native language, he or she is less likely to use them.

Then there is the fact that food and food prep is a huge part of culture – linked to traditions, religion, social encounters, and more. Impacts of food insecurity can include detrimental effects on all of these aspects of a person’s life  – not to mention their nutrition.

Cultural and Linguistic Concerns and Food Preparation and Food Insecurity in the US

One issue relating to immigrant food insecurity in the US is the adaption of cooking and eating habits to a new culture.

This causes difficulties to arise in a few situations:

  1. When common staples of the individual’s home country are no longer available
  2. When information about the use and proper storage of newer ingredients is not obtainable
  3. When healthy food options are inaccessible
  4. When there is a lack of health education overall

For Limited English Proficient (LEP) individuals adapting to the U.S. culture, these difficulties are compounded by an inability to understand the native (or otherwise prevailing) language spoken.

With this in mind, such challenges must be approached in a manner that accounts for cultural and language barriers faced by the LEP populations in order to be effective.

By providing the means and knowledge to use new ingredients and nutritional education in the native languages of these populations, the aforementioned barriers can be overcome.

Learning Entirely New Ways to Cook and Food Insecurity in the US

Food Insecurity in the US - People Preparing FoodIn 2015, a study in Southeastern U.S. resettlement centers found  that 50% of refugees surveyed had difficulty with food due to unfamiliarity with the options available. (Food Insecurity and Hunger in the US)

Not only does this affect how one eats, it poses a potential risk to traditional practices.

Food provides a sense of community, cultural or religious identity, and comfort for many individuals. Loss of these things can negatively impact one’s well being. For those already in precarious situations, such as immigrants and refugees, this can have negative effects on adjustment.

While substitutes for traditional meals might be hard to come by, providing information about the options that are available could help provide some remedy to food insecurity in the US.



With relatively ubiquitous access to information online, looking up what a never-before seen food item is and how to use it can seem simple. However, this isn’t the case for everyone, especially for refugees or immigrants who don’t have easy access to these resources.

Thus increasing accessible knowledge about ingredients, as well as how to properly store and prepare them, should be a mainstay of nonprofits dedicated to distributing food among immigrants and refugees.

For those distributing among LEP populations, professional translation services must be considered in order to implement a long-term plan to dismantle issues regarding food familiarity and preparation.

In the case of our client, this is done  through the use of translated recipes provided to individuals, along with typical food items from local grocery stores and wholesalers.

How A Boston Nonprofit Encourages Linguistically Sensitive Food Familiarity and Preparation Knowledge

Our client regularly delivers food items, consisting primarily of vegetables and fruits, to immigrant groups in need.

Their recipes are translated into four of the most prevalent non-English languages spoken in the Boston area – Chinese, Brazilian Portuguese, Latin American Spanish, and Haitian Creole.

Food Insecurity in the US - Boston Census Track Immigrants

Each one  details information about particular ingredients, and offers ways to cook the items.

In addition to suggesting ways to prepare food, best practices for food storage and preparation are also provided, including:

  • Freezing food properly
  • How to store food and long-term storage methods
  • Using left overs
  • Preparing meals in a microwave
  • Cooking in batches
  • Growing one’s own food
  • How to use overripe fruits and vegetables

By providing LEP individuals access to basic knowledge about unfamiliar food items and their preparation, in their native languages, there is a higher chance of increasing food familiarity.

This leaves one less barrier to conquer when it comes to providing for themselves or their families.

This approach is not limited to the United States. Nonprofits and international organizations everywhere should be considering translation as a tool to implement effective strategies for overcoming cultural barriers faced by immigrants and refugees related to food familiarity and preparation.

However, food preparation comes at the end of a chain of problems regarding nutrition and health for low income and immigrant populations.

Issues concerning food access and education are the first and foremost factors related to immigrant food insecurity in the US.

Food Access and Health Education

Food Insecurity in the US - SaladIn the United States there is a strong correlation between lower socioeconomic status and obesity.

This is caused in part by the widespread availability and cheaper price tag of fast food chains (the food swamp), relative to healthier items (the food desert).

A lack of understanding and information about food options served at these establishments can also contribute to the problem (though as of late there have been efforts to combat this by requiring that nutrition information is listed on fast food menus).

Even if individuals do understand the negative effects of fast food as a staple, it is often impossible due to monetary and time constraints to eat healthy while adequately providing for oneself or a family.

While there are governmental programs available to help low income families, such as SNAP for children and WIC, many immigrants will avoid taking advantage of these initiatives due to a lack of knowledge or fear of deportation (though currently there is no risk for deportation for immigrants using these programs).

When immigrants arrive to the United States they are at risk of falling into this unhealthy eating cycle. It has been documented that those who are of lower socioecomonic status are especially prone to poor nutritional habits, and therefore have poorer health outcomes.

Access to affordable, healthy and nutritious foods is one way nonprofits can aid lower income communities – such as in the case of our client who “rescues” excess food from local sellers.

Food Insecurity in the US - Fast FoodHowever, to be sustainable in the long-term this effort needs to be coupled with health education.

This is especially true for those coming from cultures or backgrounds where the impact of fast food is less prevalent, and thus the potential negative health effects of frequently eating out are unknown.

Again when it comes to LEP populations, this issue can be exasperated by language barriers.

In a 2012 study of Californians’ health status, 44.9% of LEP individuals reported low health literacy, compared to 13.8% of English speakers. (PMC)

The same Food Insecurity and Hunger in the US survey also found that the longer immigrants stay in the United States, the more the quality of their diet worsens. This is due to (among other things) lack of time and money to prepare nutritious meals, as well as a lack of familiarity with the US food system and limited English. (Food and Hunger in the US)

Community outreach health education programs are most effective when conducted in the native language of the particular immigrant group. If such programs are to have a lasting effect, these educational materials must address cultural differences and food preferences among U.S. immigrants.

Our client addresses this problem through their culinary and nutritional educational program. This initiative uses video workshops covering a variety of food and health education, given by top chefs in the Boston area.

To overcome language barriers, the educational videos are again provided in the individuals’ native languages through translation and subtitling.

Information includes:

  • How to stock items received from the food pantry
  • Nutritional content of food items
  • How to use available ingredients (e.g. mushrooms stems) to make nutritious and tasty meals
  • How to make quick and nutritious meals without using a stove
  • How to reuse leftovers to make healthy food

As families remain in the United States over several generations, there will be greater English literacy and assimilation. However, the first generation will require the some assistance.

Efforts to communicate and overcome linguistic barriers will result in better health outcomes in the long run, decreasing chronic illnesses in immigrant groups associated with poor diet such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancers, and obesity.

This in turn will lower medical costs associated with treating these chronic illnesses.

Providing access to health and nutritional education in individuals’ native languages is one of the many ways this can be achieved.

More Access to Food, More Need for Translation

Food Insecurity in the US - Fruits and Vegetables on Blue TableFood insecurity in the US is caused by various factors such as socio-economic status, limited nutritional education, and cultural perceptions.

On top of this, the rising number of LEP individuals has created a need for linguistically sensitive long-term strategies to combat malnutrition and health complications related to poor eating habits.

All considered, there is a huge need for translation of food related materials.

The transition period, during which time immigrants are acclimating into their new culture, should be considered as the most critical for providing these services.

Food familiarity and nutritional education issues must be addressed to curb long-term, negative health side-effects in immigrant populations. This is especially true as many cities besides Boston are increasingly involved in resettling non-English speaking immigrants and refugees.

To combat food insecurity in the US for LEP populations, this means providing education in the languages most familiar to them.

Food is a key part of everyone’s association with their culture, and in some cases, comprises a substantial part of one’s cultural identity. Helping to ensure that those with limited means and limited English proficiency are able to learn how they can use unfamiliar food upon their arrival to the US is a step towards promoting a healthier transition, and reduction in the issue of food insecurity in the US.

To see examples of how our client fights food insecurity in the US, check out our samples!

Learn more about International Development Translation Services.



  • “Social Determinants of Health The Solid Facts”, 2nd Edition by Richard Wilkinson and Michael Marmot

About Language Connections:

Language Connections is one of the top language service companies in the US. Over the last 30 years, we’ve focused on providing the best business translation services, interpreting services, as well as interpreter training and customized language training programs. In addition to top-tier corporate language training, we offer certified corporate interpreters and professional business translation services in 200+ languages. Our network includes linguists with backgrounds in all major industries. They’re ready to meet your needs, whether they’re for technical translation services, legal translation, government translation services, international development translation services, education translation services, life sciences translation, or something else. Reach out to us today for a free quote on our cost-efficient and timely translation services, interpreters, or other linguistic services.

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