By Elke Cumming, Special Assistant to the CEO, YWCA El Paso del Norte Region
Preparing meals is an integral part of our family gatherings and relationships. Standing on a stool next to my mami, I learned to stir together gallo pinto with a wooden spoon and pat out the bits of masa to form my first misshapen tortillas. Food is nourishment, but more importantly it is a part of family time, laughing and gossiping in the kitchen or gathered around a table of steaming dishes. As a facilitator of NCLR’s Comprando Rico y Sano program, I encourage participants in the charla to share these types of experiences to build understanding and rapport with the group.
A recent presentation of Comprando Rico y Sano to a group of 16 mothers at a homeless shelter was well received. Most of the ladies in the group were not strangers to living on a budget and shared great advice about feeding a family on a few dollars. There was a great discussion among the group, which is what every facilitator hopes for in their charlas, but one particular mother will stand out in my memory for months to come.
Bella, a pregnant mother in her twenties with her toddler in tow, had lots of questions. She shared that she survived on a diet of fast food and microwavable meals. The further along we went in the charla, the more visibly upset she became about her family’s diet. We joked that we needed to stage a fruit and veggie intervention for her family. She listened carefully and wrote lots of notes in the margins of her handouts.
After the session, Bella had more questions. She had received nutrition classes at the WIC program and other community resources but never really learned how to cook. She told me how her abuelita is a wonderful cook, but she just couldn’t make things taste the way she did. She believed the magic was in the types of pots and pans her abuela used. She asked if her caseworker and I would be willing to give her some basic cooking lessons, which we agreed to do.
The more we talked about cooking, the more she used words like “fear” and “death.” She was terrified of under-cooking meat and making her babies sick. She was afraid of burning down the kitchen. She was concerned about not feeding her children the right things to help them grow healthy and strong. Finally, she revealed the truth behind her fear. When her ex-husband did not like the meals she prepared, he would throw plates, hot pots, and sharp utensils at her. That experience of domestic violence left her with physical scars, burns, and a true fear of cooking to the point that she frequently burns herself because it makes her so nervous.
Her caseworker and I were aghast. We never expected such a disclosure at a nutrition class! Our conversation about nutritious meals had unlocked another level of healing that Bella had yet to explore in counseling and therapy. This unexpected outcome allowed the shelter to provide additional services to ensure that Bella had the support to become self-sufficient as she prepared to exit the program. She was thankful for the guidance the charla had provided, but even more thankful when she proudly prepared and served her first bowl of caldito de pollo to her daughter.