‘Food is a marker of identity’: supporting foster children’s cultural heritage

A care leaver looks at the symbolic significance of food as a link to a child's birth culture and how social workers can help those in care avoid 'cultural dislocation'

Photo: freshidea/AdobeStock

By Tina Amongi

Before I entered the care system aged 10, my uncle used to prepare home cooked dishes from my African culture. He would make chapati from scratch, which in Uganda is called ‘kikomando’, alongside a kidney bean, cassava and African sweet potato stew served with rice. This is my favourite Ugandan dish but sadly, I haven’t eaten it since I was 11 or 12.

My first foster carer was of dual white and Caribbean heritage and this match exposed me to different types of food such as cheese and ham toasties, spaghetti bolognese and Sunday roasts.

These are still dishes that I love making today as an adult. I was then placed with an Ethiopian family from the age of 12 to 18. They were very proud of their heritage and I now feel quite knowledgeable when it comes to Ethiopian culture in terms of the food and clothing, as well as speaking bit of the language (Amharic).

But from the age of 14 I started to experience an identity crisis. I was losing touch with my Ugandan roots. I no longer had the chance to eat Ugandan food and I was losing the ability to speak my mother tongue which means I now struggle to communicate with my grandmother in Uganda.

Cultural dislocation

The symbolic significance of food as a marker of identity and a link to a cultural heritage is well understood in the field of migrant and refugee studies but what about care leavers from ethnic minorities who may also be experiencing a sense of cultural dislocation?

It is vital for young care experienced people to be equipped with cooking skills to become self-sufficient as they leave care. But young people leaving care should also be encouraged by their foster parent and social worker to keep a hold of their cultural identity, and cooking the recipes that have a special significance for them is an important part of that.

Paul Adams, fostering development consultant at CoramBAAF, says: “It is very important to meet the cultural identity needs of children in care. Statutory guidance states that ‘every individual child who is looked after should be cared for in a way that respects, recognises, supports and celebrates their identity’.

“It will be important for children to have access to foods from their birth culture, and to maintain linguistic abilities, especially if members of their birth family do not speak English. In meeting these needs, social workers will need to listen to children, but also be proactive about identifying the importance of promoting culture and heritage even if the child is not asking for this.

“The relationship between the social worker and the child is key to exploring these issues. Detailed life story work, which is unfortunately not carried out to a consistently high quality across the sector, is an essential part of helping a child to think about their heritage and helping them to remain connected to that part of their identity.”

“I feel sad not to have eaten Ugandan food for so long”

When I was 15, I was allocated a day to choose the food I wanted to cook for my foster family. Looking back, I wish my social worker had taken the time to explore my Ugandan roots with me and supported me to cook the recipes that were part of my earlier upbringing.

I feel sad not to have eaten Ugandan food for so long and to have missed out on sharing cooking and eating experiences that reflect the culture of my early years.

While I remained in contact with my maternal aunt for a while, I now no longer have any contact with my birth family. I wish I was a part of a Ugandan community so that I could keep the connection with my heritage and pass on my culture to my future children.”

I would like them to have the option to wear my traditional African clothing, to be able to enjoy the food and speak the language. In the midst of the pandemic, I feel this loss and lack of belonging more keenly when I see social media posts of food bringing people in a community together.

What else can social workers do?

Adams also highlights the importance of independent reviewing officers: “Making sure children’s voices are heard, and their needs are met must be an ongoing commitment and independent reviewing officers must ensure that meeting the child’s cultural identity needs are a central part of that.

“Social workers need to bear in mind that younger children may not initially appreciate the importance of keeping a strong link with their birth culture and might understandably not be able to see that this loss might be felt at a later stage. This is not always straightforward and social workers will need to be aware that for children and teenagers, there can be tension between keeping the link with their birth culture and feeling pressure to fit in with their peers and those around them.”

Once social workers have a clear picture of the child’s identity needs, there is a lot that can be done to support the link to the cultural identity. This could be facilitating contact with the birth family or connecting the child with an independent visitor from their birth culture or local cultural associations.

Black children are overrepresented in the care system. While every effort is made to find foster carers that reflect children’s ethnic and cultural heritage, the reality is that it isn’t always possible. Children placed in foster families of different cultures and ethnicities don’t have the opportunity to learn about their birth cultures through everyday experiences and knowledge that is passed down.

This means that social workers need to take deliberate and considered action to meet the child’s identity needs.  Without proper support, this leaves many children and young people feeling lost, disconnected from their past and struggling to form a stable sense of identity as they go out into the world. It is time to recognise every child’s needs and support them to cultivate a strong and proud sense of identity.

Tina Amongi is a Story of Care Ambassador on Coram’s Voices Through Time project, exploring the history of the care system, what has changed and what still needs changing.

4 Responses to ‘Food is a marker of identity’: supporting foster children’s cultural heritage

  1. Hannah October 30, 2020 at 4:10 pm #

    Powerful piece and very thought provoking.

  2. Paije Thomas October 30, 2020 at 4:56 pm #

    An amazing read! Really enjoyed reading 🙂

  3. Sammie November 2, 2020 at 10:48 am #

    Wonderful and thought provoking article! Having emigrated from Zimbabwe with my children who were 5 and 9 at the time, I felt the need to constantly speak to them in our native tongue. I mostly cooked our Zimbabweans dishes just as we did back home, my children are now young adults and still continue to enjoy our Zimbabwean food as much as they enjoy food from other cultures around us. Throughout their days in school, they were proud to bring their Zimbabwean food whenever there was a multi-cultural food sharing day. Food and language are indeed very important aspects of an individual’s identity. Whenever we go back home, my children do not feel like outsiders amongst their own people because they can speak the language and the food is not “strange” to them.

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