Lessons from The Kitchenistas of San Diego

In this commentary, I look at lessons learned from the documentary "The Kitchenistas of National City", and explain how similar programs can help other refugee communities in San Diego facing food insecurity.


The Kitchenistas of San Diego is a short documentary film produced in 2016 by Mary Ann Beyster showcasing graduates, or “Kitchenistas” from Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center’s “Cooking for Salud” program. This program was created in 2012 in order to combat the increasing health issues residents of National City were facing, and focused on teaching topics from nutrition and health to wellbeing and financial literacy. “Cooking for Salud” tackled these issues through workshops for the community as well as integrating usage of a community garden, a crucial resource in a city lacking grocery stores stocked with healthy foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables.


The film follows the commentary and reflections of Kitchenista Maria Aurora Torres and Community Organizer Patty Corona. Inspired by their own personal experiences, health issues the community faced, and impacts of nutrition on their children, they each sought to educate themselves and teach others the benefits of healthier eating and cooking. With obesity and nutrition related health issues becoming common in National City at that time, the Kitchenistas took initiative to improve the conditions of their community. A recurring theme for Kitchenistas was the importance of good nutrition for their children and children of the community. Both Maria and Patty emphasized setting an example of healthy eating for youth, especially given the wide availability of junk and fast food in the region. A particularly striking narrative was their description of providing healthy food not only for their own children, but holding themselves responsible for feeding healthy meals for their children’s friends as well. Through assistance with local chefs and prior generations of Kitchenistas, participants in the program continue to learn how to cook traditional meals with healthy alternative ingredients as well as new recipes that make use of the ingredients they have available.


Food is a fundamental part of culture, community, health, and wellbeing. The issue of nutritional health in San Diego County is one that extends past National City alone. Food insecurity is a problem across much of Southeastern San Diego, with Margaret Chiu of the San Diego Food Systems Alliance terming it “food apartheid”, illustrating the issue with the food system especially along racial lines. Many of the city’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods, especially those with a high refugee or migrant population, are the same ones impacted by this “food apartheid”, a reflection of the inaccessibility and unaffordability of healthy ingredients as well as the widespread availability of cheap, unhealthy eats. Healthy food affordability is further impacted by the high cost of housing in San Diego, which coupled with the necessity of cars as a method of transportation, reduces a family’s budget for healthy food and overall community access to grocery stores outside of their own neighborhoods. With the additional impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, rising housing prices and other costs of living, many refugee families are disproportionately affected by the inaccessibility of healthy foods.


With a lack of data of refugee and asylee populations, it can be difficult to identify the specific areas and communities where food security issues arise. Challenges of helping refugee communities include the diverse languages spoken, legal status that determines access to support, cultural expectations, and more. However, multiple studies of smaller communities have indicated that foreign-born refugee families with children face higher rates of food insecurity. This is especially prominent for refugee families that arrive in the U.S. within the first five years, where there may be difficulty adjusting to a new environment as well as lack of access to government support services such as EBT. These food access issues also extend to migrant workers, who face similar challenges in living conditions as well as further challenges in their documentation and legal statuses. Factors beyond income and legal status can also have a detrimental effect on food security. For many refugees, the process of leaving their home countries, residing in refugee camps, and resettling can mean experiences of food deprivation or rationing. This heavily alters normal dietary patterns and practices and perceptions of food. Those who arrive in the U.S. from food insecure regions meet difficulty in navigating a new food environment, relying on cheap fast and snack foods, especially in regions such as City Heights, Chula Vista, Spring Valley, among other Southeastern San Diego neighborhoods that have an overabundance of readily available fast foods. This is compounded by the unfamiliarity of available ingredients. For many refugee communities, there is not much availability of traditionally used ingredients, leading many to seek easier solutions in unhealthy foods. The large consumption of these unhealthy foods high in processed sugars and fats can lead to long term negative health effects such as diabetes and heart conditions, as well as overall decreases in wellness such as impacts on mental health for both youth and adults.


While it is difficult to address all these issues independently, The Kitchenistas of National City illustrates an effective solution to food access and other community issues. The documentary makes it clear that food is central to culture and community. For refugees in an unfamiliar country, having a program such as “Cooking for Salud” can be a non-intimidating way of introducing them to neighbors and community leaders. A cooking program helps give knowledge about available food sources, how to use non-traditional ingredients in traditional recipes, and new healthy recipes using the ingredients families have access to. For many that come from food insecure areas, a cooking and gardening program provides education on food health and the importance of a varied diet to help form healthy habits. One of the main barriers refugee families face is the disconnection of youth with their traditional culture and family. Food culture can help bridge the gap between the younger and older generations, and by involving the entire family in cooking healthy traditional foods, we can help youth build lasting bonds with their homeland even as other aspects of their resettlement life seeks to assimilate them into U.S. society. As we can see from the documentary, the Kitchenistas continue to be involved in their communities, teaching others to follow in their footsteps and create closer bonds. With the diverse ethnic groups inhabiting San Diego, these cross community bonds can lead to greater mutual support for each other and for future generations that arrive here as well.


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