For Jennifer Peña, love and connection come in the form of tamales.
“Food is the way that we love each other,” said Peña, an intern at Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio. “If anyone is sad, something has happened, or they are going through a rough time in their life, the first thing we do is cook.”
Food is important to Latino culture, but many members of St. Paul’s Latino community don’t have access to fresh produce. A program on St. Paul’s East Side provides a community garden full of fresh fruits and vegetables for the Latino community, something many otherwise wouldn’t have easy access to.
“(CLUES) found out that in St. Paul there is a big, huge food desert,” said Janelle Calvo-Nieto, food access coordinator at the nonprofit CLUES. “They figured out that people have to go far out to get groceries or even fresh produce.”
The community garden is behind the CLUES building that is shared with the Consulate of Mexico. The garden consists of 25 family-run garden plots, each providing fresh produce for members of St. Paul’s Latino community. The produce is needed to create important cultural foods.
“I believe cultural foods are important because they bring folks together, and especially because then you can cook cultural items like tamales,” Calvo-Nieto said. “They can make tamales with their kids and with their grandparents.”
Access to fresh produce is not only wanted, but it is needed for the sake of continuing traditions in food. The fresh food necessary for most cultural dishes is expensive and difficult to find in many lower-income communities.
“Like a lot of communities, we work a lot and don’t have the money to have fresh produce, or food that is good for you all the time,” Patricia Morales, one of the community garden workers, said through a translator. “We can only afford what the cheapest option is, and the cheapest option is usually just processed food and things with high fructose corn syrup.”
Many of the cultural foods that Latino communities hold dear can’t be made with processed food.
“We cook with fresh food, not canned goods,” Calvo-Nieto said.
Cultural foods can be both healthy and authentic, she said.
The CLUES community garden, at its heart, aims to provide families moments like the ones Calvo-Nieto remembers.
“My mom taught me how to make tamales from a very young age. All of my sisters sit down and we do it all together,” she said.
And now CLUES is working toward growing the access even further, so more generations can carry on these traditions. That starts with expanding community gardens and their reach through advocacy at all levels of government.
“We are trying to figure out ways that we can engage with local, county and state officials to help move legislation and policies that would change how people are able to access land within the city,” Peña said.
Garden-to-table produce is key in Latino culture and food. And food, Peña said, is love.
“Food really brings families together,” Calvo-Nieto said. “And I think that’s why it is important to provide those cultural items, so they can continue and hand down traditions, foods and recipes.”