COLUMBIA — Comedor Popular, or "People's Kitchen," a kitchen designed to prevent obesity and diabetes, is open and running.
The new kitchen inside Centro Latino, located at 609 N. Garth Ave. in the First Ward, provides more space for services spearheaded by Eduardo Crespi, the founder of the community center.
In March the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services certified the Comedor Popular kitchen for commercial use. This allows Crespi and Andre Edwards, executive chef at the kitchen, to prepare meatless meals for Centro Latino events.
Being around Crespi has changed his outlook on food — and Columbia, Edwards said.
"He's broadened my vision of the community," Edwards said. "I've been thinking more of ways that I can get everybody to find out about the Centro and get everyone involved in diabetes and obesity programs."
Mary Martin of the Health Department sponsors Comedor Popular and helped with grants. The Missouri Foundation for Health granted money for the kitchen in January; an $88,000 Community Development block grant acquired through the city allowed Crespi to buy the building across from Oak Towers in 2011.
Martin has worked for years with Crespi, a former health worker for University Hospital, on issues of health literacy, especially diabetes and obesity.
"The true message that Comedor Popular is trying to do is speak to the population in their language — to make things understandable and not overwhelming, to encourage people to look at their lifestyle, their nutrition and, on their own hands, reduce their risk," Martin said.
Eventually, Crespi plans to provide meals and produce to sell in the central city area around Comedor Popular. For now, natural foods cafe Main Squeeze's Tamale Tuesdays is the place for those wanting to eat Eduardo's traditional Latin-style food. The profits from the tamale special go to Centro Latino.
Leigh Anne Lockhart, owner of Main Squeeze, also gave Crespi some shelving and a cooler from her restaurant because the bar in Main Squeeze is going to be reconstructed.
Martin said Crespi is "pretty phenomenal in his amount of energy put into his community center. He is attracting the community by sheer force of will. He's kind of a force of nature anyway."
Crespi targets childhood obesity in his after-school program because he sees the importance of instilling good eating habits at a young age.
"If a kid is munching on carrots instead of french fries, it will help the kid to decide to eat healthier later on in life," Crespi said.
Once a week the after-school program offers "Kids in the Kitchen," where children help prepare healthy snacks. During the month-long summer program from July 16 to August 15, Comedor Popular will host the program every day. MU Extension sponsors "Kids in the Kitchen" and provides a curriculum.
Sandra Zapata has children who participated in "Kids in the Kitchen" this spring. She has noticed they are making better choices about what they eat and can explain the importance of eating vegetables and fruits to her, which is a type of reinforcement, she said.
After "Kids in the Kitchen," her children go to church where pizza is served, but they are always more excited to eat at Comedor Popular.
During the month of April, which Crespi proclaimed "Veggie Month," Centro Latino sponsored several events called "Juicing for Peace," so named because it was set up as an alternative to the recent violence among youth. People gathered in the community room in the back of the Lincoln-Unity Laundromat, the J.W. "Blind" Boone Community Center and Comedor Popular to prepare fruits and vegetables for juicing.
Michael Pryor, a health promoter for Centro Latino and president of the Downtown Resident Association of Columbia Housing Authority, helped Crespi make these events possible. He said the juicing has helped him lose weight and gain energy. He knows from personal experience that diabetes is rampant among minorities and saw how juicing raised health awareness.
Crespi and Martin are surveying blacks in Columbia about diabetes, exercise and signals of pre-diabetes with a focus on the availability of screening and access to health care. Volunteer nursing students will compile the surveys and post results on the city of Columbia's website in August, Martin said.
Dinner and a movie on Friday and two special events on Saturday and Sunday kept Crespi busy cooking this past weekend. On Saturday, Centro Latino celebrated Cinco de Mayo with Central Methodist Church. Centro Latino donated 100 tamales to a choir fundraiser for the Columbia Chorale, and the choir sang songs in Spanish, Crespi said.
On Sunday, Comedor Popular hosted the Edible Columbia tour, sponsored by Mid-Missouri Peaceworks' Center for Sustainable Living and partnered with Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture and Centro Latino. The tour was designed to promote awareness of local food, Director of Mid-Missouri Peaceworks Mark Haim said.
Centro Latino was the last stop of the tour, with 47 people in tow, providing a meal of tamales, pico de gallo salsa, rice and beans. The bulk of the proceeds from tickets to the tour benefited Centro Latino.
From garden to table
Two plots in the Ash Community Garden and Crespi's farm north of Columbia will provide vegetables for Comedor Popular this summer. There are also kale plants in front of Centro Latino and red bell peppers in the front yard of a family home on Sexton Road.
Crespi has already started seeds at Centro Latino, with the help of children, for planting in the gardens that will include zucchini, kale, cucumber, tomatoes, bell peppers and jalapenos. A group of volunteers will care for the garden.
For now, Crespi buys most of the organically grown produce from local groceries, although kale plants in front of the center are producing. On Wednesday, Alicia Ellingsworth of the Gibbs Road Community Farm in Kansas City donated plants for the gardens and kale for meals during a visit.
Crespi expects similar donations in the future from local farmers.