I remember the first time the cafeteria server put a sealed plastic cup on my tray. I asked my friends what it was. "A fruit cup," they said, laughing. I had never seen anything like it: grapes, peaches, pineapple and pears cut into small squares and put into a cup, weeks or months before being eaten. They looked nothing like the original fruit. And when I tasted it, I realized just how far from home I was.
I grew up in Guyana in a small village on the Demarara River called Canal Number Two. My family has farmland about two hours away by boat, and my brothers and I would help my father plant tomatoes, banana trees, and cabbage. We would milk the cows and deliver it freshly bottled to our customers, who were also our friends and neighbors.
And on sunny afternoons, we would climb a mango tree and pick the ripe ones. I loved the feeling of the wind on my face as I sat on the branches, looked out on our green fields, and ate the fruit.
Lunches and dinners were home-cooked: vegetable curry seasoned with masala and jeera, and hearty soups with cassava, spinach, edo and plantains. We didn't have a refrigerator, so everything was fresh. The ingredients came mostly from our own farm or the farms of other families in our community.
My childhood taught me that food is much more than a source of nutrients and that meals are a time to sit and savor.
I came to D.C. for high school, but I've also learned a lot outside the classroom. After living here a few years, I understand why it's easy to fall into unhealthy eating habits. Life is so much busier, and there's lots of cheap, fast and prepared food.
I've traded afternoons on top of the mango tree for quick after-school runs to 7-Eleven to buy chips or cookies, just something to fill my empty stomach. It's not a habit I enjoy.
But fast food isn't my only option. There are farmers markets and community gardens here, and I can continue other traditions from back home, like gathering friends and family to enjoy a home-cooked meal together.
We don’t have farmlands, mango trees and fresh milk, but that doesn't mean I have to trade a healthy diet for the education I'm getting here in the U.S.
Lalaram Guyadin participates in WAMU's Youth Voices program in partnership with Youth Radio and D.C's Latin American Youth Center.