Bates students present restaurant research for Somali Bantu farmers

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LEWISTON — If all goes well, Lewiston will be home to a new Somali Bantu farm-to-table restaurant, which will provide traditional food from Somalia made with fresh and locally sourced ingredients.  

A Bates College anthropology class has been working with two local nonprofit groups to research the viability of a farm-to-table Somali Bantu restaurant in Lewiston over the past semester. 

The class worked with the Sustainable Livelihood Relief Organization, the Cooperative Development Institute and the Harward Center for Community Partnership.

The organization a farming co-op based in Lewiston and run by Somali Bantu farmers. They would provide the fresh food for the restaurant.  

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Through a grant from Harward, the class was able to perform real-world research which will benefit the Somali Bantu community and the Sustainable Livelihood Relief Organization which wants to open a farm-to-table restaurant.

Working with Mohamed Dekow from the Sustainable Livelihood Relief Organization and Jonah Fertig-Burd from the Cooperative Development Institute, the class embarked on their semester-long project. 

Sam Boss, the Community-Engaged Learning and Research Program assistant director, said he has a long-standing relationship with Fertig-Burd and Dekow. 

“I heard about the idea of putting together a restaurant and the need for research,” Boss said. His next step was figuring out what that need would work with and the solution came in the form of professor Elizabeth Eames’ anthropology class titled Production and Reproduction.

The class of juniors and seniors broke into four groups to research and present their findings, with each group responsible for a specific topic. The topics were promotion, location, farm-to-table and international restaurants.

They presented their findings to the Sustainable Livelihood Relief Organization and Somali Bantu community Tuesday night at St. Mary’s Nutrition Center. 

The promotion group produced an advertising video and shared other ways the restaurant could get attention through a website, leaflets and social media. 

The location group focused on the pros and cons of the building under consideration for the restaurant, as well as looking at other locations if the original one falls through. 

The group handling farm-to-table logistics looked at the practices of other similar restaurants in Maine, how their operations work and what practices could be adopted from them.

The last group looked at other ethnic restaurants in the area, including Pure Thai and Mother India, and researched what people like about them. The students found that what people in Lewiston like is the food’s authenticity and quality. 

Darby Ray, director of the Harward Center and professor of civic engagement, said there is constant emphasis on the Bates curriculum in trying to integrate classroom learning and real-world communities. 

“This is an amazing learning experience for our students,” Ray said. “This expands their sense of the world and who they get to learn from.” 

She described their being able to learn from their community partners and not just a professor in a classroom. 

“These new immigrants bring with them their own agricultural practices to Maine, which is an agricultural state,” she said.

Ray added that using that food to open a restaurant is a relatively new idea for the Somali Bantu community, which tends to be more family-based. 

She was excited for the opportunity to interweave older and newer practices, she said. 

Fertig-Burd from the Cooperative Development Institute works with co-ops in the food system and said their role in the restaurant is in assisting with developing the structure and business plan. 

“Our hope is to open next summer,” he said. 

He has a background working with farm-to-table and said it’s exciting to see this concept coming to Lewiston. 

Fertig-Burd said the two elements for success are community support and engagement. He said having Bates students involved is a big part, too. 

He hopes the restaurant can provide something that appeals to the Somali Bantu community as well as the Lewiston community at large.

Hopefully the name, Isuken, which means unity and togetherness, will prove to be prophetic. 

Bates College senior Matthew Winter puts food prepared by Somali Bantu women on his plate at St. Mary’s Nutrition Center in Lewiston on Tuesday. Students from professor Elizabeth Eames’ anthropology class made a presentation on creating a cooperative farm-to-table restaurant in Lewiston. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Mohamed Dekow introduces the women who prepared the evening meal at the St. Mary’s Nutrition Center in Lewiston on Tuesday. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

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