Plants are at the center of Edda Berti’s childhood memories.
She spent weekends at her grandfather’s farm in rural Peru learning how to cultivate crops. Together, with dirty hands, they would take trimmings from young fruit trees and splice them into one another. Berti and the other children in her family would take off their shoes and squash grapes in wine barrels.
At her childhood home in Huaral on the outskirts of Lima, Berti’s mother grew onions, peppers, chilis and other vegetables in a big yard outside of the kitchen and used them in her cooking.
Berti grew up, studied in Brazil, then immigrated to the U.S. and settled in St. Louis. She lost touch with her nature-filled childhood.
But when her mother died in 2018, she felt the plants pull her back.
“Home for me is food, is plants, because she was gardening,” Berti said. “So to come back to that moment of losing her, and grab a little bit of her, was to reconstruct all these things that for me was balance and home.”
Berti started gardening — a lot. She’s now on the board of Fit and Food Connection, a health and wellness nonprofit in St. Louis. She has a garden in her backyard and a plot at a local community garden, where she grows vegetables to donate.
Berti remembered a lot of what her grandfather taught her about plant cultivation, but she wanted to learn more — and she wasn’t alone.
She was one of more than 260 people who enrolled in an urban agriculture course offered in Spanish by University of Missouri Extension. This included Spanish speakers from around the nation and in countries all over Latin America — plus Japan and Spain.
As the coronavirus pandemic forces people into isolation, the class seeks to give Latinos the tools to improve their mental and physical health at home.
Latinos in the U.S. have higher rates of diabetes and obesity than white Americans, which makes them more likely to experience COVID-19 complications. They are 2.5 times more likely to die from coronavirus than white Americans, age-adjusted data shows.
Amaya Carrasco Torrontegui, one of the organizers of the class, said growing your own food not only improves physical and mental health, but also has a positive financial impact. And, if people grow food at home, they don’t have to go to the grocery story or eat at restaurants where they could be exposed to coronavirus, she said.
From concept to class
Juan Carlos Cabrera, an MU Extension field specialist in horticulture, considers the class a success.
Students learned skills like garden planning, choosing pots and pest management. Some participants have a couple of flowerpots in their backyards; others, like Berti, have access to larger established gardens.
Cabrera started his job only six months before the coronavirus pandemic forced the university to cancel all in-person activities. He was teaching a virtual gardening webinar when he received a message from Carrasco Torrontegui asking if he could do a version of the class in Spanish.
Carrasco Torrontegui knows what it’s like to be a migrant; she has grandparents from Basque country in Spain, parents from Chile, and she was born in Ecuador.
“For me it was very difficult to come to the U.S. because I didn’t have friends and my visa didn’t allow me to work or study,” Carrasco Torrontegui said. “And that was very hard.”
While walking around her neighborhood in St. Louis, Carrasco Torrontegui passed by a plot of land where people were growing plants.
She found out it was part of U City In Bloom, a nonprofit with over 200 community gardens in University City. A volunteer at that garden happened to be from Ecuador, too; she became Carrasco Torrontegui’s first friend in the U.S. and introduced her to the world of urban agriculture.
“I discovered that was a passion for me — growing food, connecting with people, being in nature, learning from plants and insects,” Carrasco Torrontegui said.
Carrasco Torrontegui got involved in several St. Louis-area urban agriculture programs, which led to research jobs where she investigated the impact of growing produce in cities. She’s even published a book chapter in Ecuador about urban agriculture in St. Louis.
When the book chapter was published in May, several people reached out to her for gardening advice.
“I was giving out advice for free,” Carrasco Torrontegui said. “Over the phone, over Zoom calls, helping them to grow food.
“All of them were worried about the pandemic because everywhere in the world we experience a food shortage.”
She messaged Cabrera about the class and they began to collaborate with Ramón Arancibia, another Extension specialist.
In June, they launched the class: Agricultura Urbana Sostenible. It will be offered again in the future, Cabrera said, and MU Extension is working on finding funding that will allow it to remain free for participants.
Growing produce at home is a potential solution to the health disparities Latinos face.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Hispanic Americans are 70% more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than white Americans.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites “higher levels of food insecurity” and “greater access to poor quality foods” as contributing factors to high rates of obesity in both Black and Latino communities across the nation.
Access to fresh food is a contributing factor to diabetes and obesity rates, and neighborhoods where predominantly Black or Hispanic people live have fewer grocery stores. On average, Latinos in the U.S. live half a mile from the nearest store offering fresh produce, according to the USDA.
But fast-food restaurants and convenience stores, both of which sell mostly processed and high-calorie foods, are more common in these neighborhoods.
Carrasco Torrontegui said she saw the impact of this firsthand as a medical interpreter.
“I was there with the people, with little kids five years old, kids with diabetes, and I thought, ‘Why are these little kids having health problems?’” she said.
Research has proven that gardening has a positive impact on physical health and also mental health, Carrasco Torrontegui said.
The CDC has warned that the stress of a pandemic, illness and isolation as a result of public health measures can all contribute to poor mental health.
Carrasco Torrontegui said the MU Extension class seeks to help with the mental and emotional challenges of this moment in addition to physical health.
“It’s like a therapy, I would say,” said Guillermina Garcia, one of the participants in the class. “Spending time in something that is good not only for you but also for the environment. The feeling of planting something, seeing it grow, taking care of it every day — it’s rewarding.”
A family activity
Gardening for Garcia started with community, too. When she lived in St. Louis, she was a member of a ladies group that met once a week at her friend’s house. The woman had a vegetable garden and showed Garcia how to tend to the plants.
When Garcia moved to Texas years later, she remembered how good it felt to pull carrots and zucchini out of the ground with her friend. But she had forgotten much of what she’d learned about growing vegetables.
Stuck at home in Mansfield, Texas, during the pandemic, Garcia has missed the outside world.
“To learn something new made me feel better,” she said.
Even her adult son has taken an interest in the plants.
“(We) have a lot of free time, so we are seeing things that we have never seen before together,” she said. “I never thought that he would be paying attention to my flowers.”
Gardening is also a family activity for Guadalupe Mejía. Her four children, who have been home from school since April, help her cultivate a vegetable garden behind their house in St. Louis.
“This year since we were quarantined, they participated more in planting the plants, growing the seeds and cutting the grass,” Mejía said. “It entertains them.”
Like Berti, class participant Guillermina Quiroz has fond memories of her mother’s cooking using fresh vegetables from their garden.
“I remember, when I was little, my mom would keep vegetables in the fridge, and when the vegetables got old the peas would start to sprout,” Quiroz said. “I liked to take them and plant them in a pot. So I knew a little bit about planting.”
Although the class is a little advanced for her, Quiroz said it has shown her the intricacies of plant cultivation and encouraged her to grow food for herself and her family.
She planted tiny tomato seeds in some pots in the backyard; they grew into huge bushes. When the green tomatoes turn red, the first food she’s going to make is a fresh salsa — just like her mother used to.
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