A documentary screened this week at UC San Diego put a spotlight on local, Latin-inspired cooking and how traditional recipes can be turned into healthier dishes and, ultimately, into healthier habits.
UC San Diego hosted a screening Tuesday evening of “The Kitchenistas of National City.” The 20-minute documentary was followed by a discussion on how to use healthier Latin recipes to create healthier eating habits in a community plagued with health issues.
The documentary focuses on National City, a community approximately seven miles south of downtown San Diego, whose obesity and diabetes rates are among the highest in the state – and the highest in San Diego County.
It follows the story of the “Kitchenistas” – Maria Aurora Torres and her granddaughter, 8-year-old Daisy – local residents who graduated from a program at Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center in National City called “Cooking for Salud!” that teaches healthy cooking and eating habits.
When Torres was in her 40s, she was diagnosed diabetic and later developed a high potential for kidney failure. She soon learned that the way she was cooking her traditional Mexican dishes was detrimental to her health and the health of her family.
In the film, she explains that diabetes has become an unwanted tradition, with many of her family members developing the disease at around the age 40.
“I want people to learn that they don’t have to be diabetic. I want to start with me and my family,” Torres says in the documentary.
Torres joined “Cooking for Salud!” to learn new, healthy ways to make her favorite meals.
Graduates of the program are affectionately known as “Kitchenistas,” a term also meant to signify the idea of being a professional within one’s own kitchen.
According to Blanca Meléndrez, Executive Director of the UCSD Center for Community Health, 60 percent of adults in San Diego County are overweight, and 15 percent of the population is considered food-insecure – not knowing from where their next meal might come, or whether it will be nutritious.
“The Kitchenistas” emphasizes health challenges such as an overabundance of fast food restaurants in National City, and how the area is considered a “food desert,” which means that fruits and vegetables are not easily accessible within one to 10 miles of where most people live.
It’s also a largely Latino community and one of the poorest areas in San Diego County, as City data shows that 22 percent of its residents earn income below the poverty level compared with 10.1 percent of the general population of San Diego County.
The film’s producer and director, Mary Ann Beyster, said she decided to pursue this story when she saw the Kitchenistas speak about the Cooking for Salud! program at the Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center.
At the seven- week program, local chefs donate their time to support healthier lifestyles by teaching nutritional recipes, organic gardening and cooking advice to a class of 15 students.
“I saw Maria present and found it really inspirational. I knew that this could start a dialogue,” said Beyster, speaking at the film screening. “It dawned on me later that the mothers are really social entrepreneurs.”
Beyster describes mothers as key family members who can be empowered to stop cycles of poor nutrition and break unhealthy habits.
The screening was followed by a lively discussion led by a panel of speakers who talked about the deeper themes in the movie. This included commentary from panelists Patty Corona, Beyster, Meléndrez, Healy Vidgerson and Dr. Martha Soledad Vela Acosta.
As another Kitchenista herself, Corona noted that people want to make changes, but they often do not have access to the tools or resources to alter their lifestyle.
“In two or three minutes when these women tell you all the illnesses in their families, you have to cry,” said Corona at the panel.
After describing the lack of access people have to nutrition education and how the program helps develop healthier practices, she later said, “What makes the program stronger is how the women who take it become leaders in the community.”
Meléndrez said the problems in National City are exacerbated by having cities designed for cars rather than physical activity, along with 50 percent of restaurants only offering fast food meals.
Dr. Vela Acosta finished off the panel by emphasizing the importance of taking a holistic approach to positive health practices.
“If you’re going to build a house, are you going to use cardboard? No, so how are we going to build our bodies?” she said.
Acosta talked about how the most important factor in eating habits often boils down to time, and whether or not people prioritize planning ahead for their meals.
“Maybe I don’t have enough time, but I can use a slow cooker and come home to a healthy meal at the end of the day,” said Acosta.
She also reminded everyone not to only prioritize physical health but to appreciate their mental state as well.
After the screening and panel, guests were treated to Kitchenista-inspired food.
This included cauliflower cerviche, baked mini chile rellenos and Baja California chicken quesadillas filled with veggies, herbs and jack cheese. Refreshments included coffee drinks and a sugar-free, icy fruit punch mixed with fresh lemon slices. Some of the dishes included healthy recipe handouts, as well as a Latin cookbook called “El Sabor De Mi Cocina.”