While fruit may not top many children’s lists of favourite desserts, there can be few in the UK who have never eaten any. But for some Romanian youngsters living in Spain, this was the case before social services and the church became involved in their lives.
Immigration is a major social issue in Spain, with immigrants making up between 2% and 2.5% of Spain’s 45 million population. In Montilla, a town in southern Spain, there are about 500 immigrants, some legal and some illegal. About 300 are Romanian.
On arrival in Montilla, the immigrant children and their families initially found it difficult to source the types of food that had formed their diet in Romania, and as a result suffered serious stomach problems.
After hearing of the problem, Montilla social services and the local evangelical protestant church set up a project to help the group change their diet and teach them about healthy eating.
“We had people who had terrible stomach cramps,” recalls church minister Jim Memory, who works for European Christian Mission International, which has offices in the UK. “They would be eating only cabbage with potatoes and drinking alcohol.”
When the project began, the families were already receiving food parcels from the Red Cross – but these were made up of pasta and rice, which Romanian people do not eat. The families put the parcels in the bin, leading local people to believe that any food given to them would simply be thrown away.
Memory says services often fail to talk to the client group they are trying to help before wading in. “Not many people start from the premise of asking people what they really need,” he says. “[Instead,] we tend to start from the premise that they need food so we will give them food.”
By contrast, the Montilla project started by talking to the families about their diet, and looking at what was good about it and what could be added to it rather than trying to substitute it for a Spanish diet. The church and social services then organised trips to supermarkets to find out what people were buying and to make suggestions about what they could try. This was coupled with sessions on healthy eating, and practical cooking sessions held by Memory’s wife, Christine, a trained catering manager.
“Before the project, my diet was very disorganised,” says Juan Dragut, a Romanian who took part in the project. “We just ate what we could get. Now it is much more balanced and healthy. We eat fruit that we would never have eaten before – pears, apples, all sorts of things.”
Memory says it was important for the project to target whole families as it let children see their parents trying new things, making them more inclined to follow suit.
Other issues, such as domestic violence, also arose during the work with the families, allowing social services to tackle problems that may have remained hidden.
Cameron Galisteo, director of social services in Montilla, says the town’s residents generally have a positive attitude towards immigrants, but the behaviour of a few Romanians was giving them all a bad reputation. The Spanish government runs large scale public awareness campaigns to tackle discrimination but Galisteo says that, when prejudice arises between direct neighbours, initiatives also need to work on a personal level.
In this respect, educating the Romanians about adopting healthy lifestyles has helped integrate them into the community. “When someone is in front of you in the supermarket and their trolley is full of alcohol, crisps and chocolate and unhealthy stuff and you think they are getting benefits to buy it [it can fuel discrimination],” Galisteo says.
“It helps the integration side of things with other people [if they buy healthy food instead].”
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This article appeared in the 28 February issue under the headline “Food for thought”