Meet our Visiting Professors

Food medicines in migrant communities

A conversation with Belgian anthropologist Melissa Ceuterick

Melissa Ceuterick is an anthropologist teaching at Ghent University in Belgium and working on the intersections between migration and health. In Pollenzo,  she lectures for the Masters Program about Andean food medicines and the change in Andean diets after migration, analyzing how migration affects the use of traditional medicine among these specific communities.

What is your main field of study?

As a starting anthropologist I developed a love for Latin America as I conducted my first field work in Mexico amongst the Nahua, on their use of medicinal plants. Afterwards I did my PhD studies at the University of Bradford, on the use and perception of traditional medicine amongst Andean communities in the United Kingdom. For this, I did field work in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and in Lima, Peru, and of course among Andean communities in London. From there I developed an interest on how migration affects health in different ways.


We also have immigrants and refugees in Italy: some of them are facing psychological and health problems as a result of their traumatic journey to Italy and difficulties during their migration process.
Does your research focus on this issue as well?

My current research focus has shifted towards the impact of migration on mental health and accessibility of mental health services for migrants in Belgium.

My research among Latin-American communities in the UK also offered some striking insights into the occurrence of mental health problems amongst Andean communities. Surprisingly, one in three had experienced mental health problems, yet mostly sought informal forms of care to treat their problems. Often, these participants used specific food medicines to cure themselves. Some of these species have clinically proven effects, but some species are deliberately used for their more symbolic value.


Is there a close relationship between food and traditional medicine?

There is definitely a big overlap between what is considered food and what is considered medicinal.

What I saw was that after migration people start to use more food species for medicinal purposes more than before migration. And of course there’s the other aspect of recreating your diet, reproducing what you were used to have back home, creating such a familiar feeling through food, also creates general health benefits.


Can food help in recovering an identity which has been broken or to reconstruct an identity?

Food plays a very important role in who you are,  in your identity, and it is one of the things that is most difficult to change. So being able to reproduce the dietary habits you have, has multiple health benefits and tells something about a person.

The use of traditional medicine in general, besides just food medicines, has an important role in the creation of an identity: for many of the people I spoke to in London, using herbal remedies was a deliberate strategy to maintain and create an identity, and was very much linked to who they were and how they wanted to represent themselves.

Some people use traditional medicines because it’s part of their tradition, family and culture: they really identify themselves as still being Andean, using those herbs helps in maintaining their ethnic identity. Other people used traditional medicines more for health reasons and identified more as health-aware consumers, and the third group of people use traditional medicines as a last resource after negative experiences with the official biomedical health care system.


Could  you tell us more about your present work in Belgium?

Our main focus currently is on accessibility to mental health care services in Flanders: we look into barriers that people experience when they try to access these services, we look into possible bias of mental health care providers, and we also explore possible bridges to care. Previously I’ve been working on a project on culturally sensitive care for migrant communities. We (together with Steffie Jalhay and Philippe Degelin) edited/published a book on this subject, focusing on how organizations from a management point on view can adjust their policies and practices as well to cater more diverse communities.


How is your experience here in Pollenzo?

This is my third time in Pollenzo: I enjoy being here because the students are so involved, they really stimulate to teach, to go the extra mile and I have always very interesting conversations with them.


What is a gastronome, from your point of view?

A gastronome is someone who studies food, but also has a deep connection with food, loves food and who sees food more than something functional to keep alive.


To what extent is food a topic in your research work?

It wasn’t my initial focus when I started the Ph.d,  but because the participants use so many food species for medicinal purposes I ended up studying food medicines, that’s how I got into the field.


Which other communities did you study apart from the Andean community?

Belgium like many other countries  in Europe has become super diverse. We have a number of established communities, that arrived in the sixties and seventies of the last century, mainly to work in the mines: they were economic migrants. There is a very large Turkish and Moroccan community, and also a large Italian community in the mining area. Currently there has been a large influx of people arriving as refugees from Syria, Iraq and Somalia.


What are, in your opinion, the main challenges in the future of food?

What we found out regarding Andean foodways, many of what we call traditional dietary habits have become commercial trends recently.  For example quinoa is one of the most commonly used food medicines amongst the Andeans in their countries of origin, but it also became a large commercial trend affecting the cultivation and the prices in the home countries (especially Peru and Bolivia), basically affecting the social and ecological system in the Andes, so that’s one point where we have to look into: to reflect upon how we can sustainably maintain these commercial trends. Of course quinoa has many nutritional values and benefits, it’s logical that it gets integrated into diets here, but we need to think about sustainable ways of maintaining that tradition.

From the point of view of culturally sensitive dietary advice for migrants, I think we have to take into account the super diversity that we are living that’s a trend that it is not going to reverse anymore.

We need to find new ways on how to accommodate for increasingly diverse populations living today in European countries and how will we develop nutritional educations for those communities.


In your work did you encounter problems with religious prescriptions in food; if so,how did you, and the organization with whom you work, deal with them?

How to accommodate for super diverse communities is one of the issues we discussed in my latest book.

For example retirement homes and elderly care centers today are experiencing an influx of people with different migration backgrounds and different religious dietary prescriptions: the question is how should we accommodate for those differences? There is not one straightforward answer to that, it depends on the organizations. One example I can give is there is nothing wrong with serving halal food to other non-Muslim residents .
So there are multiple ways how those religious prescriptions can be integrated in a way that everyone still feels at home.


Today, we are seeing  demagogical and political manipulation of these diverse food cultures throughout Europe; what is your opinion on this?

In Belgium there is a big debate in the media and politics about ritual sheep slaughtering by the Muslim community: there are more and more restrictions on that, it is still allowed, but with very strict limitations. The animal welfare perspective is used increasingly to fuel right wing discourses. Right wing is on the rise in Flanders and elsewhere in Europe with more conservative governments, but on the other hand the diversity of communities and their food ways is increasing, and dietary traditions do persist. To end positively, I  think that food can play a very important role in creating more social cohesion between communities, and I believe it is essential to bring communities together and search for a useful entry point to create a dialogue, food can fulfill this role.

by Alessandra Abbona, UNISG Communication Office

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