La Cocina Alegre
Ulrich, Clare, Human Ecology
When Pilar Parra, a research associate in the Division of Nutritional Sciences, created a program some years ago in Rochester, New York, to educate Puerto Rican women immigrants about diet and chronic disease, she called it Partnership for Health. In a few weeks the women renamed it La Cocina Alegre, or The Happy Kitchen. By that time it was their program, which was Parra's explicit goal.
When immigrants come to the United States, Parra explains, they leave their traditional foods behind and adopt a diet that is high in carbohydrates, sugar, and fat. Among some Latino immigrants living in the United States there exists a tendency to develop type II diabetes in their thirties and forties, about 10 years earlier than the average population, and it is triggered by weight gain, lack of exercise, and smoking. Heart disease is another risk. But many of the dietary recommendations Hispanics in general receive in the United States do not conform to their beliefs about food or their practices.
Parra has a threefold approach for making a project like La Cocina Alegre work: "It has to be based in the community you are going to serve, it has to be done in a participatory way, and the information you provide has to address the needs of the population you are working with in a culturally appropriate way. You must convince participants that this project is for them and that it will work only if they take ownership of the program."
La Cocina Alegre was implemented as a one-year pilot program with funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Parra began by organizing a series of focus groups with women and men, 40 years old and older, who had been diagnosed with, or were worried about developing, chronic disease. She questioned them about their diets and what they would like to learn if nutrition classes were offered. The focus group participants also were asked to become promotores, or volunteers, to encourage people to join the program. The promotores received training from a nutritionist who spoke Spanish fluently and was familiar with Latino food. They collected traditional recipes and worked with the nutritionist to reduce the fat and salt and increase the vegetables and fruits used in the dishes while keeping the taste and texture familiar.
After the successful pilot program ended, the impetus for activities at La Cocina Alegre came from within. …