Students Teach Burmese Refugees Baking Basics

Burmese woman learning to bake

UNC Dietetics major Minday Stewart, right, shows BeBe, who goes by a single name and is a matriarch in the local Burmese community, how to measure ingredients while making banana bread. Related: Video of a baking class. Photo and video by Katie Owston.

Four senior Dietetics students at the University of Northern Colorado are on a mission this semester to teach a group of refugee Burmese women how to bake. They’re starting with the basics because the women have never baked before.

The women are among about 600 Burmese political and religious refugees resettled in Greeley by the U.S. Refugee Service Program. Many work in the local meat packing plant.

UNC’s Realizing Our Community program, directed by Maria Sanchez, has partnered with local religious organizations to help the refugees find jobs, a place to live and schools for their children.

“My job is to introduce them to the community and show them the resources available,” Sanchez said.

As part of that process, UNC students Katelyn Garteley, Yanira Holguin, Samantha Nishimoto and Mindy Stewart are teaching a group of Burmese women the basics of baking: how to wash their hands before they cook, what a measuring cup is and how to turn on the oven. Most had never seen a modern oven before arriving in Greeley.

The women are eager to integrate into American culture and want to be able to cook for their families, but they’re unfamiliar with the basics of American food. When they were asked what dish they would like to learn to make, they had no idea.

Since one of their favorite American foods is cheesecake – they eat it any time of the day – the students decided to start by teaching them to make banana bread as a healthier alternative. The Burmese love bananas, which are a familiar fruit to them.

“We’re not trying to tell them what to do or how to do it, but rather, show them alternatives,” Sanchez said.

The first step was grocery shopping.

“We didn’t have a translator so it was challenging to communicate," said Mindy Stewart. "We used a lot of hand gestures and ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ‘good’ or ‘bad’ statements.

“For example, we showed them the low-fat and fat-free milk as the better option than whole milk and flexed our muscles to show it was for strong bones and pointed at our teeth."

The initial cooking sessions focused on things like learning the measurements of the ingredients, how to combine them and the workings of an oven.

Each Burmese woman was given a step-by-step guided recipe that included pictures of each ingredient with the measurement in the correct order. The pictures are important because even if the recipe is translated into their language, many of them cannot read or write it.

BeBe, who goes by a single name and is a matriarch in the local Burmese community, did the cooking while the other women eagerly sat and watched.

“Her bread turned out perfectly," Stewart said. "I was told she made it a second time on her own.”

The Dietetic students will give a presentation about their unique experience during UNC’s annual Embracing Community, Together program on Nov. 16. ECT is an interactive forum at which campus and community representatives share and discuss applied research activities, collaborative community projects and volunteer opportunities.

For more information about the forum, visit http://www.unco.edu/hsl/ect.html. For additional information about the Realizing Our Community program, visit http://www.unco.edu/roc/get_involved.html.

- Brittany Sarconi

Waste Not
Another UNC initiative aimed at nutrition provides food to community members in need.

Each evening, staff, faculty, and students from the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences meet in the kitchen at Holmes Dining Hall, according to Susan Thompson, professor of Elementary Education. Surplus food is then packaged and driven to the local Salvation Army center, where it is used to serve breakfast and lunch the next day.

The "Waste Not Food" program, started by Thompson and UNC Executive Chef Aran Essig, is a collaboration of UNC Dining Services, faculty from the School of Teacher Education and the Salvation Army in Greeley, which feeds about 80 people each day. Student volunteers from the CEBS’s BearHug Club in the Early Childhood Education provide help daily.

As of now, food is collected and packaged only at Holmes Dining Hall. The group hopes to expand the program after Christmas to include Tobey-Kendel Dining Room.