Just Food Conference Brings Latinos to the Table on Food Activism

Yadira Garcia of Happy Healthy Latina conducting a cooking workshop in El Barrio, NYC in 2016 (Photo/Walter Roeder)

Yadira Garcia’s close relationship with food began when she fell down a flight of stairs in her junior year of college, leaving her unable to walk and in enduring pain.

The disability caused sudden spikes in her cholesterol and blood pressure, and she ended up with prescriptions for Oxycontin, Vextra and Lipitor. She said she suddenly had found herself, “a prisoner in her own body,” and at 20, was told this is what her life would be. Then she lost her health insurance.

“When you’re not handed the right road map, you can’t get to your destination,” Garcia said. “So, I went back to my elders. I thought, ‘What did my grandmother eat?’ I went finding these foods. I started to eat well and started to see how my health was improving and changed. I went from a walker to a cane. It was a three to four year process – very incremental. Eventually, I got off my cholesterol medication.”

Garcia told her story to open the 2017 Just Food Conference held this week at Columbia University’s Teacher College in New York City where nearly 800 food workers, farmers, scientists, activists and citizens gathered to collaborate on creating and advocating for an economically equitable, environmentally sustainable and healthy food system for all.

Now 33, Garcia is a food educator, community chef, and has her own blog, Happy. Healthy. Latina., where she posts her latest healthy recipes and answers readers’ questions. You can also check out her latest project there – a new cooking show, called “Healthy Cocina,” which is produced by actress Zoe Saldana, and also features Saldana’s sister Cisely.

Garcia, who was raised in New York City but whose family hails from the Dominican Republic, said our ancestral knowledge is our power. She decided she wanted to give away the knowledge she had, and she also put herself through culinary school – the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York.

“I learned how to activate Latino foods,” she said. “I make medicinal sofrito.”

In addition to hosting cooking workshops with seniors and ex-offenders in the community, teaching them how to use food in a healthy manner, Garcia is also on mission to get nutritional education to youth by spearheading wellness classes in schools.

“I am extremely concerned about H.R. 610 – the (proposed U.S. House) bill that will affect snacks and meals in schools,” said Garcia. “I feel an urgency now to tap the community … We train parents how to make demands. If we don’t know what’s happening, we’re silent. I talk with them to add their voice. We the people are the only ones who can make a change. We the people have to use our voice. Instead of being scared, we can talk … There is power in numbers.”

“I think this is why I was given my ability to walk again, to be able to share my testimony,” she adds.

While eating healthy foods is a challenge for some, for others, it is getting sufficient food at all, along with getting food that is nutritionally beneficial.

JoseChapa

Jose Chapa, farmworkers legislative campaign coordinator at Rural & Migrant Ministry at the 2017 Just Food Conference in NYC. (Photo/Kristina Puga)

Jose Chapa, 32, justice for farmworkers legislative campaign coordinator at Rural & Migrant Ministry, said food and restaurant workers are the most food insecure population – many can’t afford to feed themselves, and injury and illness rates at work are also high.

“Part of what I do is try to get the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act passed,” said Chapa, a panelist at the conference. “In the 1930’s, when the New Deal was passed, farmworkers were excluded from many rights like overtime pay, or a day of rest. The Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act would enact a 40-hour work week and an option for a day of rest. A lot of the time, the standard of living is so low, there are no sanitary requirements, no protections for farmworkers. Only recently, they were given minimum wage and access to drinking water in the fields.”

Rural & Migrant Ministry, a non-profit located in Poughkeepsie, New York, aims to change unjust working conditions for farmworkers, and will be a part of the Cesar Chavez Rally for New York State Farmworker Rights on March 30.

Chapa, born in China, Nuevo León, Mexico, feels close to this cause, because he grew up as a migrant farmworker. He migrated with his family to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas when he was 4.

“My parents wanted a better education and future for me and my brother,” said Chapa, who came to New York three years ago to fight for farmworker rights, while the rest of his family is still in Texas. “Every summer, my family would go to Iowa and Minnesota to work the fields. My family worked picking corn and cotton every summer from when I was 4.”

He said he personally worked in the fields from age 15 through 16.

“I remember conversations of my dad talking to farmers in broken English. I heard racial epithets. That impacted me,” said Chapa. “The first time I went out in the fields to work, I had a heat stroke because it was so hot. Those two things drew me to this work.”

In addition to educating the community about the bill he wishes to see passed, he also reaches out to similar organizations to collaborate. He said he tries to create a sense of community where farmworkers can gather and talk about issues they are facing – especially with the increasing fear of immigration enforcement.

“I’ve heard of more activity of border control by Buffalo,” said Chapa. “We refer folks who are fearful to other organizations depending where they are in the state. What would help a lot is the passage of this bill. We have very good speakers on our side, and we are hoping these voices can give farmworkers a voice.”

RicardoSalvador

Ricardo Salvador uses chart to show how poverty intersects with race and ethnicity during keynote address at “The Future of Food Justice” session on March 13. (Photo/Kristina Puga)

Dr. Ricardo Salvador, senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, based in Washington, D.C., delivered the conference’s final keynote address, “The Future of Food Justice.”

“The footprint of inequity is something I want to talk about,” said Salvador, 59. “Without a just food system, we can’t have a just nation.”

He explains that a just food system is one that doesn’t exploit food workers, and the current model is based on production for as much profit as possible. The fundamental purpose of the food system, he said, should not be one which enables us to solely survive, but one which also nourishes us.

“Profits should not the primary goal, but healthy people and animals,” said Salvador. “But this is not feasible because most people are not informed. We need to point people to places where it’s working – that is concrete and real.”

One of the ways the Union of Concerned Scientists has taken action to coordinate and align leadership is by forming The HEAL Food Alliance. The national organization was founded in 2015 to bring together farmers, food service laborers, scientists, policy experts, and community activists in order to achieve effective policy change in our nation’s food system. It does this by empowering local leadership, training future politicians in policy issues and working against monopoly power structures.

This topic is close to Salvador’s heart, because like Chapa, he comes from a Mexican farm-working family. After the 1942 agreement between the U.S. and Mexico, also called the Bracero Program, his uncle and hundreds of thousands of mostly indigenous people migrated to join the agricultural labor force in various parts of the U.S.

“This set the pattern for decades of subsequent migration and exploitation,” Salvador writes in his blog.

“I have family farming in California and in Mexico, and they were all exploited,” he said. “I felt they were discriminated against – no matter how hard they worked. That’s why my work has turned into social justice work.”

Salvador’s research suggests that the U.S. has one of the highest rates of income inequity in the world. Other studies also have documented this.

“This is what needs to be undone…You deprive people of their land, and you will create impoverished people,” said Salvador, noting the income equity found in some Native American reservations. “There is an exploitation of human beings for the creation of wealth.”

Salvador continues to say, if we want a society where we all thrive, we need to invest in each other.

“If we are all one race, we really need to believe it,” he said. “All of us here now are making the future. We need to be careful not to commit the same errors … You have to believe things will get better, because you fight for them. I came from people who took big risks.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

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The Lives of Migrant Farmerworkers’ Children Focus of ‘East of Salinas’

When we think about where our food comes from, we don’t often think about what our farm workers go through on a daily basis, let alone their children.

Award-winning filmmaker Laura Pacheco thought about it for the first time after reading a New York Times article in 2011. The story was about Oscar Ramos, a third grade teacher in Salinas, California, who came from a migrant family. Ramos teaches in Sherwood Elementary School, where half of his class is made up of children of migrant farmworker families. Often these children have to move several times a year to follow the harvest and have to wake up at 3am to go to a babysitter, before school, so their parents can go work in the fields.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” said Pacheco. “He knows what’s missing in these kids’ lives,” said Pacheco about Ramos.

There are more than 2 million farmworkers in the U.S., and their median wage is a little over $9 an hour. Immigrant farmworkers (approximately 75 percent are coming from Mexico) often leave their home countries to seek a better life for their families. However, the average migrant child may attend as many as three different schools in one year, often making it difficult for a child to advance to the next grade level.

'East of Salinas' producer/director Laura Pacheco  (Courtesy ITVS)

‘East of Salinas’ producer/director Laura Pacheco (Courtesy ITVS)

Pacheco was so intrigued by these figures that she wrote Mr. Ramos and told him she’d like to meet and talk to him about making a film. Together with co-director Jackie Mow, they decided to focus on one family, and one boy in particular, José Anzaldo.

“We decided to follow one to get an intimate look of what a migrant family is like in America,” says Pacheco.

After three years of filming, their film, “East of Salinas” will be premiering on PBS’ Independent Lens on Monday, December 28th. (10pET, see PBS for local listings).

Jose’s mother, Maria, is from Mexicali. She used to work in a clothing factory, but she couldn’t support herself and her children. Jose’s stepfather is from El Salvador, where he also did agricultural work, but he says, “You can live there, but you were always hungry.”

Coming to the U.S., the family still often goes to bed hungry, but not as much. José loves school, especially math, but he is one of two million undocumented children living in the U.S. today. He is María’s only son who was not born in the U.S. – so she worries about his undocumented status and what that portends for his future.

Pacheco and Mow were able to follow José around since the 3rd grade. He’s already attended more than five schools and is now in 7th grade. He’s continuing to do really well in school, said Pacheco.

“In the beginning, he’s a little naive about his situation, and at the end he becomes more aware,” said Pacheco. “It’s really hard to see someone’s potential, and then leave and not know if he’s going to have food the next day – Oscar (his teacher) still goes to see them and takes the boys to the movies.”

Teacher Oscar Ramos takes 5th and 6th graders, including José Anzaldo, to visit UC Berkeley, part of the 'East of Salinas' documentary.  (Courtesy ITVS)

Teacher Oscar Ramos takes 5th and 6th graders, including José Anzaldo, to visit UC Berkeley, part of the ‘East of Salinas’ documentary. (Courtesy ITVS)

His teacher Oscar Ramos sees the little boy’s promise and wants to help him get ahead. The question is, what opportunities will be available for children like José, a bright student who is undocumented?

Pacheco hopes viewers take away certain things from watching the film such as what education is like for farmworker children and where our food is coming from.

“But if I had to say one thing, I hope José lives in people’s hearts,” says Pacheco. “Immigration is a hot topic right now. It gets so polarized. People feel so righteous on both sides of the debate, but you can see who the kids are that are going to make America great and should be given an opportunity.”

“These are the families who are picking food for America,” says Pacheco. “We should know what their lives are like.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

Holiday Recipes We Love: Peruvian Pork

Surfish's "Peruvian Pork" (Photo/Chef Miguel Aguilar)

Surfish’s “Peruvian Pork” (Photo/Chef Miguel Aguilar)

A good roasted pork can find its way onto just about every Latin American Christmas dinner table. There’s the Cuban lechón, a whole pig marinated in citrus and garlic and cooked low-and-slow in a caja china. The Puerto Rican pernil, a juicy shoulder cut rubbed with garlic and herbs and oven roasted. And then there’s Peruvian pork, flavored with aji panca, a unique chile virtually unknown outside of the Andean region. Smokey, sweet and fruity all at once, the heat from this chile is precisely what makes Peruvian pork—well—Peruvian. We asked 43-year-old Lima-born Chef Miguel Aguilar, winner of the Food Network’s “Chopped” competition last summer and owner of Brooklyn’s Surfish restaurant, to share his recipe. Aside from the aji panca, Aguilar also uses soy sauce. “Peruvian food has a lot of fusion,” he says. “It has no barriers.”

Aguilar serves his Peruvian pork, pictured above, on a bed of mashed sweet potatoes and tops it with fresh salsa.

Peruvian Pork

10-pound pork shoulder
15 whole cloves of fresh garlic
1 big red onion cut in large pieces
15 ounces aji panca paste
2 quarts chicken stock
3 cinnamon sticks
1/2 cup of soy sauce

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

2. Place the pork skin side up in a large roasting pan, and pour the chicken stock over it.

3. In a blender, puree the garlic, onion, aji panca paste and soy sauce for about a minute, or until pasty. Add a little of the chicken stock to the puree to make it pourable, and pour over the pork.

4. Add the cinnamon sticks to the liquid and season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover the roasting pan with aluminum foil and cook in the oven for 3 1/2 hours. No basting is needed. Remove from oven when internal temperature reaches 165, and allow to rest for 15 minutes before cutting.

5. To serve, place individual slices of pork on a bed of sweet potato puree, drizzle with the pork juices from the roasting pan, and garnish with freshly made salsa.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

Peruvian chef has a full plate at new La Mar

Victoriano López, executive chef of La Mar Cebicheria Peruana (Photo/Kristina Puga)

Victoriano López, executive chef of La Mar Cebicheria Peruana (Photo/Kristina Puga)

“Don’t use those plates,” says Victoriano López, the executive chef of the recently opened La Mar Cebicheria Peruana, to one of his 20 line chefs, as he calmly reminds his new international team that they have new white plates from France and Germany.

“This is one of the details that differentiates us from La Mar in Lima,” the small-framed López says of the china.

Fans of Peruvian food have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of a Gastón Acurio restaurant in the city, so their hope is that not much else is different from the acclaimed original.

New York‘s La Mar opened two weeks ago in the high-ceilinged former home of Tabla at 11 Madison Ave.

Originally from the Ancash region of Peru, López says that he became aware of Acurio almost two decades ago while watching one of the first of his many TV cooking programs.

After being mesmerized by the variety of plates and ingredients and trying to learn the innovative Peruvian recipes he saw Acurio and his wife, Astrid, create on the tube, he went to the couple’s flagship restaurant in Lima, Astrid y Gastón, to meet his hero.

“He asked me how do you know me?” recalls López in his native Spanish. “He gave me a job as his assistant one week later. He has helped me so much – not only in learning about the kitchen, but like a father, because my parents didn’t have the economic means to help me. I am so grateful to him.”

Now López, 40, who never had formal culinary school training has been trusted with leading the kitchen at Acurio’s 29th restaurant worldwide – his first on the U.S. East Coast.

“The advice I can give Victoriano is to be himself,” Acurio said via e-mail of the chef he’s worked with for 17 years. “He has a big heart, talent, ability and overflows with modesty.”

López had to leave his family in Peru while their visas are processed, is living outside of his homeland for the first time and is working from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. – but he doesn’t seem to mind.

“We spend about 18 hours together every day,” laughs Luis Jaramillo, his Ecuadoran sous-chef, who was previously at One If by Land, Two If by Sea in the West Village. “I was always inspired by Gastón … but now I am inspired by Victoriano.”

López says he doesn’t have a favorite dish on the La Mar menu, where prices range from $12 to $39 for appetizers and entrées.

But eight of La Mar’s famous ceviches are on the menu, including Elegance, a lime-drenched and slightly spicy warm-water fluke with red onions, Peruvian corn and little yam balls, and Lopez’s specialty, Maine lobster grilled over corn husks and drowned in a tangy ceviche sauce.

While López waits for his wife and three school-age kids to join him in New York, he also dreams about opening his own restaurant one day.

“I teach the philosophy of Gastón, passion for the kitchen,” he says. “We have no secrets.”

Originally published in the NY Daily News.