COLUMBIA — The future home of Comedor Popular has all the trappings of a construction site: beams without walls, shovels caked in mortar and an architect sifting through floor plans.
Contractors of every ilk are present — plumbers, electricians, carpenters — all plotting the vision of a healthier community with greater access to affordable foods and health services.
Comedor Popular, also known as the “People’s Diner,” is a Centro Latino initiative designed to develop an affordable, plant-based eatery near the intersection of Garth and Sexton avenues. Eduardo Crespi, director of Centro Latino, believes a healthy food alternative is needed in the heart of the neighborhood.
“This building is right in the neighborhood that needs healthy food options the most,” Crespi said. “People here don’t have access to fresh, local fruits and veggies.”
The City Council has approved an $88,000 community development block grant toward the purchase of the building located at 609 N. Garth Ave., the former site of T & H Restaurant. Once renovations are complete and the proposed wellness center opens, the purchase of the building can be finalized in July, Crespi said.
Comedor Popular was originally conceived as a venue designed to confront the obesity and diabetes epidemics. Mary Ella Steck, a volunteer for Centro Latino, believes an approach that centers on fruits and vegetables can help curb these trends and improve people’s lives.
“People experience incredible healing benefits when they opt for excellent nutrition,” Steck said. “You see people who can get off their insulin and diabetic meds if they’re willing to opt for excellent nutrition.”
Crespi plans to establish a donation area in Comedor Popular that will provide people with surplus food from local farmers markets. Centro Latino is also working with the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture to develop a community garden.
Although obesity prevention and diabetes control are major components of the initiative, Crespi’s vision for Comedor Popular extends beyond that of an eatery. He describes it as “a meeting place.”
Comedor Popular will have a public health facility and a social services office, Crespi said. He added that the center will be equipped with a referral clinic, and the public health facility will provide access to a registered nurse and doctor. Centro Latino has a partnership with MedZou, an MU student-operated medical clinic.
The bare wooden beams and dusty floor give the interior the look of an abandoned erector set. But the partitions created by the beams reveal the future layout of a neat interior that will feature a dining area for lunch, a counter space and a public health facility in the back.
With all the pieces for a thriving community center in place, Crespi knows the renovation stage is the final piece of the puzzle.
“We’re focused on finishing the construction phase,” Crespi said. “We have the network created.”