Noemi Villarreal sees Latinos in San Antonio struggle with disease, and wants to help. That’s why she has helped launch family support connectors, and also developed farmers markets in the Eastside, a heavily Latino section of the city. The farmers markets did not work.
How could Villarreal and neighborhood leaders still bring cooking and nutrition education to families to help prevent disease? Thinking outside the box, they created a series of classes that include a chef demonstration—and take-home bags so families can replicate nutritious food recipes at home.
Emergence: San Antonio’s Eastside Promise Neighborhood (EPN) is home to 18,000 residents (67.5% Latino) who face health issues due to inequities in income, education, access to health care, and access to healthy food and places for physical activity.
EPN leaders like Noemi Villarreal, Health & Wellness Manager, work hard to boost health.
They started a door-to-door community connector program that links Latino families to support services. They also partnered with other groups to start some local farmers markets, where they wanted to inject fresh fruits and vegetables into this food-desert area.
But few people came to the farmers markets.
“We did not understand why the people in our community were not taking advantage of what we were offering. We were bringing the produce right to them,” Villarreal said.
“That’s when we knew we had to do something differently.”
Development: Villarreal said she and her team realized that the many people in the area simply did not know what a farmers market was, nor did they know how to cook with the produce being offered.
They came up with a new solution in 2015: Free family cooking and nutrition classes.
“We decided we needed to have a cooking and nutrition class not just for the parents but for the whole family,” she said.
“We wanted a place where a mom could come with her 5-year-old child or her 10-year-old child and cook a meal with them.”
With the idea in mind, they started the process to create cooking/nutrition classes.
Villarreal presented her ideas to the Eastside Promise Neighborhood’s Director, Tony Leverett. After hearing Villarreal’s proposal, she said Leverett understood the need for the classes and the role that they would play in helping to change the “food culture” of the area’s residents.
Funding would come from Villarreal’s budget.
Her team started scouting locations for the classes.
They decided to have free hour-and-a-half classes each week at each community center with 15 minutes set aside for nutrition education for local residents (proof of residency required).
Who would cook and teach nutrition?
EPN put out a call for service and hit upon a uniquely suited partner: The San Antonio Food Bank.
Villarreal and her team reached out to Dr. Luz Miriam Neira, the San Antonio Food Bank’s Director of Nutrition, Health & Wellness. After discussing the project, they decided that the Food Bank’s staff would not only teach “students” how to cook and prepare healthy recipes, but they would also bring bags packed with all the healthy ingredients that families could take and replicate healthy meals at home.
“We didn’t want the chef to be at the front of the class cooking for 30 minutes and everyone just sit there and watch,” Villarreal said. “We wanted the participants to be actively engaged in the process.”
Enactment: The classes began in the fall of 2016 at the two community centers.
Those that attended the classes learned how to shop for healthier food options, how to cook with the healthy foods that they bought, new recipes, how to “stretch” food budgets to purchase even more healthier food options, and how to get physically active.
Word of mouth has helped generate a weekly attendance of 30 people.
“It was wonderful to see the parents come in with their kids and you could see that everyone in the family ‘got it,’” Villarreal said. “They were learning new ways to be healthier and they were expanding their minds on what food could be.”
Implementation: With the emerging popularity of the cooking/nutrition classes, Villarreal and her team felt it was time to make these permanent.
She once again met with Leverett and he agreed the classes had value and were showing results.
EPN has extended the class schedule from the fall to year-round.
They want to conduct more classes and expand on topics.
“We feel that the long-term goal is ultimately to reduce the obesity rate in this part of the city and have that spread to the whole city,” Villarreal said. “We know this takes time for a change of habits to happen. We want to be the ones to plant that seed to make that happen though.”