While many in Madison see the Latino community as a uniform population, Karen Menéndez Coller, the executive director of Centro Hispano, knows that’s far from the truth. There are many different classifications of “Latino” based on country of origin or how recently an individual immigrated.
But she said it was impossible to miss a major area of common ground during her first year at Centro Hispano: food.
“They were just so interested in coming together and talking to each other about food, their traditions,” Coller said.
Talking about food is one way to engage the local Latino community and it’s a necessary topic. Food insecurity is a problem in the populations Centro serves. The organization is capitalizing on this with a new wellness initiative designed to increase awareness of healthy food options and spark community health leadership.
There are two core programs of the initiative: one focused on food security and food justice and the other a community health worker training program. Centro is currently looking to hire two employees, with one to oversee each of the programs.
The food security and food justice program has several components, including a community garden behind Centro Hispano, a Latino farmer’s market and summer educational workshops. All three aspects already exist at Centro, but will be expanding in the coming year.
When people move to Madison, they spend the first few years focusing on surviving, rather than thriving, said Mariela Quesada Centeno, director of adult programs at Centro. Living in a new place that’s not designed to accommodate the diet of their countries of origin, they often fall back on what’s readily available in south Madison: fast food. Centeno calls the area a “food swamp” instead of a desert. Food is available, but not particularly healthy food.
The food insecurity program helps to expose Latinos to healthier options and fresh ingredients. The Let’s Get Healthy summer program consists of workshops and field trips to farmer’s markets, the Willy Street Co-op and Whole Foods, along with education about available food stamp programs. Understanding their options helps Latinos to take ownership of their city and establish roots, Centeno said.
This summer the Let’s Get Healthy program, previously available for adults, will be expanded to include a children’s curriculum called “What the Earth Makes for Lunch.”
“It’s a really nice thing for the children. Many of them really don’t know where food comes from,” Centeno said.
For the past two years, Centro’s summer farmer’s market provided a culturally-appropriate place to try buying local.
“If you go to larger urban centers, there’s mercados at every corner, and they don't call them ‘farmer’s markets,’” Coller said. “It’s got a different vibe for a purpose, it fits the needs of our families, it engages them.”
The markets are also a great way to give vendors experience which could potentially lead to food carts or restaurants, Centeno said.
This year, Centro will start hosting winter farmer’s markets every Wednesday at the center for the next two months from 3 to 6 p.m. The markets started in January, and currently host six vendors selling foods like mole, tortillas, plantains, papayas, bread, honey and eggs.
Centro also plans to expand their existing community garden and add an outdoor kitchen for cooking demonstrations. Centro guests will be free to harvest herbs like basil and cilantro from the garden .
The other main aspect of the wellness initiative, the community health worker program, was developed out of a need to serve Latinos around Madison who don’t live close by or have easy transportation options to the Center.
“We needed more staff; we needed to provide more services. And there were people who are interested in providing social services to the community,” Centeno said. “How can we kill two birds with one stone?”
The answer was a new initiative designed to train six or seven community health workers that will link the community with existing health services, acting as “Centro Hispano with legs,” Centeno said.
The workers will go through a 10-month training period that includes instruction in English literacy, medical terminology, financial literacy and available community services.
The community health worker model, used around the world, is in line with Centro’s goal to empower Latinos to build up their community rather than provide direct services.
Instead of asking “How can we help you?” Coller said, she wants Centro to ask, “How can you retake ownership of your life and what can we provide?” She would love the community to take over leadership of Centro over the next ten years.
“We need to start doing initiatives that can guarantee that our families are going to feel like they have their own power and that they’ll going to be able to move forward,” Coller said.