COLUMBIA — Obesity puts people at risk for high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, and respiratory problems, just to name a few. And as the rate of obesity in the U.S. increases, Columbia organizations are working together to fight and prevent the disease on a local level.
Comedor Popular, also known as "people’s diner," is a Centro Latino initiative aimed at fighting obesity fourfold: by establishing a plant-based eatery; cooking classes; wellness and obesity prevention programs; and a retail shop selling fresh, seasonal produce.
Centro Latino started taking obesity preventive measures in 2004 by serving healthy snacks to students in an after-school program and by securing a garden plot at Ash Street community garden. But the obesity rate in Missouri has increased more than 18 percent since 1985, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so the program started to take larger steps fight obesity.
“Obesity is an epidemic that is not getting better,” said Eduardo Crespi, director and founder of Centro Latino. "It’s advancing. You have to do something about it."
Crespi’s maxim is to think globally and act locally, and he hopes to fight unhealthy lifestyles by providing fresh produce to families in the First Ward through the upcoming program.
“Right now, there isn’t a grocery store in the First Ward, and to fight the epidemic, people need access to fresh, low-cost produce,” he said.
Comedor Popular’s eatery will serve hot, vegan meals, and the retail shop will sell fresh produce. The obesity prevention programs and the cooking classes will complement the eatery and retail shop by teaching families how to cook plant-based meals.
The meals and produce will be sold at an affordable price to help low-income households obtain healthy and nutritious foods, but Crespi said Comedor Popular is for everyone.
“In the First Ward, obesity isn’t just a problem for poor people, it is a problem for everybody,” he said. “The rich just eat better quality junk.”
Crespi said those buying food from Comedor Popular may pay whatever they can afford for the produce.
“Some will be able to pay full price, while others will only be able to give a dollar. Of course, for those who have nothing, we will be giving them food,” he said.
Coordinators are making arrangements with farmers who are willing to give or sell seasonal produce at a nominal price to Comedor Popular. During the winter months when fruits and vegetables are scant, Crespi anticipates buying produce from a whole foods distributor.
While members of the First Ward endorse Crespi's endeavor, they think Comedor Popular's success will come gradually. Bill Thompson, First Ward resident and vice president of the Douglass Coalition, said he supports the project.
"We have become a fast food society. If we teach people to prepare their own wholesome foods, it's healthier, and it's cheaper in the long run," Thompson said. "But like anything new, it takes a while for people to change their mind-set about healthy foods."
Comedor Popular is not a new undertaking. Crespi and his team have been researching childhood obesity, writing grant proposals and developing the master plan for nearly four years, and while the project is still in the development stage, Comedor Popular has made steady progress.
In August, Centro Latino, secured a location on 609 N. Garth St. Volunteers gutted the building over the past couple months, but coordinators are waiting on a building permit before moving forward.
The nonprofit organization is renting the building from Dudley Roth, who, according to Crespi, cut Centro Latino a break on rent payments.
Centro Latino is applying for grants to ensure the long-term sustainability of the new operation, but it isn't waiting for pending donations. Centro Latino has partnered with other organizations such as MU Extension and architects from Peckham and Wright to make headway.
Adam Saunders, associated with Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture and a volunteer for Comedor Popular, was given indispensable tasks: find fresh produce providers and develop a system to perpetually supply the operation with local produce.
Saunders said his goal is to help community members grow urban gardens, which will supply Comedor Popular with fresh, local produce.
“I envision Comedor Popular as a place where people, a part of the community, can sell their produce and gain access to affordable foods,” he said. “But right now we’re just brainstorming.”
Comedor Popular has yet to set an opening date.