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Learning the language of food

Tinting Liu, left, Ting Cui and Xiao LI taste their samples of wild rice casserole while Sandy Willprecht answers their questions about some other deli items. (Brian Basham/DL Newspapers)

If you were a foreign student living and working in Detroit Lakes on an agricultural study exchange program, what would be the most difficult aspect of adjusting to your new environment?

According to Thais Lara Nascimento of Brazil, Xiao Li, Ting Cui, and Tingting Liu, all of China, it's the food.

"Food is one of their biggest challenges," said Kathy Simison, an adult basic education coordinator with Lakes Learning in Detroit Lakes.

The four students, along with Simison and two volunteer ESL (English as a Second Language) tutors, Sandy Willprecht and Linda Ditterick, toured Central Market's deli and produce departments with the store's produce manager, Greg Severson on Tuesday.

The foursome is among seven students living in Detroit Lakes and working at Bergen's Greenhouse this year on an ag study exchange program.

"We currently have seven students here in Detroit Lakes, from three different countries -- Brazil, China, and the Ukraine," said Mara Bergen, who is hosting the students along with her husband, Chris.

Bergen's hosts students from three different university exchange programs each year, including the University of Minnesota in both Crookston and the Twin Cities, and Ohio State University.

"We just started working with Ohio State this year," Bergen said.

Altogether, Bergen's has hosted approximately 100 students in the past 10 years, she added.

Each student will live in Detroit Lakes for a year, sharing a furnished home, working at Bergen's and taking ESL classes at the Lincoln Education Center two or three nights each week.

"We really enjoy getting to know these students and sharing our greenhouse technology, as well as our cultural history and interests with them," Bergen said.

"We are responsible for them while they are here, so we have them over (at home) for the holidays, and include them in our traditions, social and cultural events. The Polar Plunge was fun for them, they'd never experienced anything like it."

Ice skating, water skiing and barbecuing were also favorite activities, she added.

Simison said that when she asked the students what they (Lakes Learning) could do to make their lives in Detroit Lakes a little easier, the students all said they could use some help with food shopping.

So on Tuesday, Severson showed the four students who were able attend the tour how to navigate Central Market's fresh produce, deli and bakery departments. He answered questions the students had about sales receipts, packaging and identifying the various kinds of fruits and vegetables.

One item the students were very curious about was wild rice -- which Ting Cui identified as her favorite American food. All four of them sampled the wild rice hotdish from the deli.

"Wild rice is huge up here (in northwest Minnesota)," Severson told the students, but noted that it's not as common in other parts of the country.

So what is the most confusing thing about American food for the students? The measurements used in the packaging.

"We use the metric system," explained Ting Ciu.

Thais said that she had been eating a lot of dairy products, because they were similar to what she ate in Brazil.

"They mainly use fresh ingredients back home -- nothing prepackaged," Simison explained, noting that they were very curious about the deli, where many dishes were pre-cooked and sold to customers for re-heating at home.

A particular favorite? "Jello," said Ditterick with a laugh.

As for their work at Bergen's, Mara said the students train in everything from planting to production to shipping, in order to figure out what they're passionate about.

"It depends on what their interests are," she explained. "We really enjoy it... it's kind of a win-win situation on both sides."

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454