A Refugee’s Story on a Disconnected Food System

The Story of Fadumo Farah

In Kampala, Uganda’s national and commercial capital that is home to 1.5 million residents, local markets burst with an array of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as fresh meat from nearby farms. The most populous city in Uganda, many residents of Kampala shop for their fresh produce at these markets.  Many do not farm. However, the interdependent community inquires one another about farming practices for certain staple foods.

Fadumo, a 24-year-old Somalian woman lived in Kampala and enjoyed having liver with fresh peppers and onions for breakfast. Fadumo was displaced by a civil war in Somalia that began as a result of the overthrow of President Sharmarke by Mohamed Siad Barre in 1969. Most viewed Barre as a dictator and he too was overthrown by clan-based militias in 1991. The following civil war has lasted over 30 years, triggered famines and food shortages, and claimed roughly 500,000 lives. Because of this hazardous state, Fadumo’s family fled Somalia and took refuge in Kampala.

Her immediate and extended family inhabited a complex with multiple bedrooms and outdoor space for some of the children to sleep. Her family did not farm because tools were expensive, but they frequented the markets to get their food. Fadumo’s mother did the majority of the cooking and the entire family ate together with neighbors and sometimes friends. Fadumo would eat a hot, healthy, and fresh breakfast right before going to school – although she wasn’t as interested, her parents pushed her to go to school, as education was very important to them. Overall, the community Fadumo lived with was very happy, and meals felt energized as they ate under the sun.

Having applied for refugee resettlement through the United Nations, Fadumo and her family were offered the opportunity to resettle in the United States. On September 24, 2001, Fadumo and her family moved to the U.S. Fadumo was only 8 years old at the time.  When her family arrived in the U.S., a resettlement agency helped them find housing and provide their basic needs for the first three months. Fadumo’s father had trouble finding a job because of a language barrier but since Fadumo and her siblings spoke English at home, learning the language was much easier for him. Fadumo’s family had to learn quickly to provide for themselves.

Food in the US

The U.S. imports a majority of its food from other countries. The farming population has drastically decreased since the 1900s due to foreign competition; in 1900, just under 40% of the population lived on farms while today only 1% live on farms. However, farm size has increased threefold, forcing existing farmers to industrialize rapidly. The federal government offers subsidies to farmers, however only 39% of farms receiving subsidies – the majority given to large factory farms. Since these farms have such large outputs, it takes time and money to distribute to retailers, which degrades the quality of produce and increases its price. Trade agreements that reduce or remove tariffs and help to bolster local farmers are declining.  In addition, produce tends to sit for very long periods on shelves in grocery stores.  As a result, “fresh” food has a tendency to be expensive and not so fresh.

Fadumo observed this phenomenon after starting school at the University at Buffalo. There, it was difficult and more expensive to obtain healthier food; fast food was significantly cheaper to eat.  Fadumo would often not eat breakfast as a result of time constraints due to classes and the expense of eating the healthier options she desired.  In addition to the lack of healthy options, Fadumo found it very difficult to eat according to her religious beliefs.  As a Muslim, she follows tradition by eating halal.  Without access to halal foods, Fadumo either could not eat what was available or had to make compromises in order to be able to eat.  Even when the food was halal, it wasn’t very fresh because small local farmers lack local support.

To Fadumo, the disconnect between the U.S. and Kampala was astounding.  Living in a wealthy country like the U.S., she believes that finding organic, fresh food should not be so difficult. For her, the U.S. has the potential to grow organic food and sell it at a profit while keeping prices down for the customer.  However, growing food that is not riddled with pesticides or antibiotics is almost impossible. In the U.S., the massive influence of the $1 trillion food industry forces farmers to follow their rules; small scale farmers are forced to meet industrial production values or sell their land.  The difference in food standards between Uganda and the U.S., a far wealthier nation, is unacceptable and requires us to act towards increasing the accessibility to fresh, organic food. Such food would allow refugees like Fadumo to flock to the U.S. not only for the opportunities but the large availability of organic food. Fresh organic food should be easily accessible to people from all walks of life in order to have a more happy and healthy society.

Authors: Kyumin Lee and Nathan Atkins

Editor: Jessica Scates

Design: Nicole Little