Globally Aware: Learning About Food Issues from Another Hemisphere, Part 4

In my life, I have access to everything I need and want and more. I often go through my day without thinking about this privilege, easily fulfilling my daily desires: moving from the food coop or farmer’s market to the drugstore to the gas station to the post office, all within minutes of my home. Having just spent a year living in South America, away from all of these conveniences, I have gained a renewed and humbling appreciation for all that I have in America. As a middle class, white American, I experience an access and abundance that is quite extraordinary. In Minneapolis, I also have the good fortune of working as a public health nutrition educator and cooking instructor. Much of my work aims to improve the access and ultimately the health of other Americans who, for a variety of reasons have less ease within the system.


After a year of living in Mendoza, Argentina, my family and I finished our stay in South America with a six-week trip to Bolivia and Peru. Like every country, Peru is full of irony. Within its landscape of stunning mountainscapes and gorgeous river valleys, there lies extreme poverty, harsh living conditions, and poor health and nutrition. While many communities sustain themselves through farming and tourism, others are so remote and so lacking in fundamental resources that they often go without what they need for basic health and even survival.


Our trip to Peru brought us to the Sacred Valley, which stretches between the thriving city of Cuzco, and the town of Ollyantaytambo, the gateway to Macchu Picchu. Here I was, literally halfway across the world, in an area as different from Minneapolis as could be, but people were facing similar nutrition and health issues, and the solutions were practically identical. Here, I found people living in extreme poverty and facing compromised health as a result; at the same time, I was thrilled to also find caring, committed people who are trying to make a difference.


Ten years ago, Sonia Newhouse arrived to the Sacred Valley, a haven for young hippie foreigners seeking spiritual awakening among the abundant indigenous communities and Incan ruins that sit around every corner. Sonia was 71 and seeking a simpler life when she arrived from England to make the Sacred Valley her home. But she was quickly affected by the poverty and malnutrition she observed within the high Andean communities.


Sonia soon befriended an indigenous, Quechua-speaking nurse, Rita Año Olivera, who was working in the remote corners of the region, where access to healthcare is limited at best. As the two women became friends, they began to discuss the local problems; it was clear that the diets of the local people lay at the heart of many of their health problems. 


Not surprisingly, in these communities that sit above 3,800 meters, growing conditions are tough, and the weather can be brutal. The local people were subsisting almost exclusively on potatoes. In addition to poor physical health and malnutrition, many families also struggled with domestic violence and other social issues tied to poverty. 


Sonia and Rita devised a plan. They gathered together the women of the communities and, with Rita acting as an interpreter, the women were able to openly discuss their issues, concerns, fears, and needs. Every woman in the conversation was most concerned for the health and well being of the community’s children. Like many of the activists in our own community, Sonia and Rita recognized that empowering these communities through helping them to grow and cook food would be the best foundation they could help to lay for the health of future generations.


Sonia had no previous experience in running a restaurant or café, but she decided that a café would be a good way to achieve her goals: to raise awareness of the plight of the local communities, to create work and support for the local women, and also to raise funds for the community. And so, Hearts Café was created.


While there are many ways to initiate programs, Sonia’s idea to build a healthy foods restaurant to fund her project was brilliant, especially given the location. Ollantaytambo is the gateway to one of the most beautiful and popular tourist destinations in the world. Thousands of people visit the town throughout the year on their way to Macchu Picchu, and many of them are looking for a wholesome, inexpensive, and tasty meal.


Hearts Café is simple and unpretentious, from its white walls and brightly colored pillows to its wooden tables. The menu is also unpretentious and includes everything from homemade whole grain bread, hearty soups, and chicken casserole, to banana pancakes and decadent chocolate cake. There are traditional Peruvian dishes on the menu, as well as brown rice, hearty salads and broccoli. These are all foods that can grow in the rich soil and abundant sun around the Sacred Valley, but for a variety of reasons similar to the same barriers that exist in our own Twin Cities community, these foods are not grown or consumed with any regularity. 


With publicity and funds from Hearts Café, Sonia was able to found the charity organization Living Heart in 2007, with the mission to support the remote, highland communities above the Sacred Valley. Hearts Café donates 100 per cent of its profits to Living Heart’s projects. Between Sonia, Rita, and a passionate and dedicated staff of three other people, Living Heart uses the funds to help to build a healthier and more sustainable community by providing the resources, materials, and training for local people to grow, cook, and eat healthy food.


While I was in the Sacred Valley, I was lucky enough to spend a day with Rita and Fani Karaivanova, Living Heart’s manager. First, we met at the farmer’s market in Urubamba, where Rita begins every Monday collecting huge bags of vegetables, quinoa, whole-wheat flour, local cheese, and eggs.  She and a driver then proceed to schools above the Valley, delivering the food to be prepared at school. The kids run out excitedly to help carry these massive bags to the store room.


We also delivered a truckload of supplies that will be used to rebuild an old greenhouse at a school. Living Heart is impressively thorough with their materials, sure to cover everything from locating a water source, to creating an organic gardening curriculum entirely in Quechua, and including cooking and medicinal herb classes. 


Living Heart has created a thorough, organized and comprehensive program with the ultimate goal of creating a sustainable program that can exist even when Living Heart is no longer in the Sacred Valley. Since Living Heart’s arrival in these communities five years ago, people’s diets have changed dramatically and as a result so have their health, their teeth, and their community! 


I believe that one of the biggest challenges of getting good food to underserved communities is a lack of basic food skills. If a community has been living without a wide variety of healthy foods and the knowledge of how to cook them, its cooking and eating traditions will reflect that lack. In Minneapolis, this limitation is displayed by the consumption of large quantities of fast or ready made and packaged foods, and limited or no scratch cooking. In Peru, while there are no McDonald’s or Burger Kings nearby, the residents in these communities will often bring their potatoes or quinoa to the market, and use their profits to purchase pasta, bread, or other packaged or sugary foods in the place of the whole foods. 


In my opinion, because these lower quality, less healthy foods are all around us, the solution lies in education and skill building. We have to strengthen people and communities from within, so they have the ability to sustain themselves in a healthy way. The most powerful tool we can give people is the power to feed themselves healthfully, which includes, ideally, the ability to grow some of their own food. 


Fani and I remain in communication and I am beginning to brainstorm ways to bring interested public health and nutrition students and professionals to the Sacred Valley to gain a glimpse of how healthy food systems work on the other side of the world. I remain continually amazed that despite the extreme differences in geography, culture, language, and tradition between the Sacred Valley and the Twin Cities, many of the solutions were extremely similar.


As humans, we share so much. Living Heart certainly shares my vision for a sustainable and whole food system.


Check out all of Living Heart Peru’s projects on their website.


Jenny Breen has been a professional chef in the Twin Cities since 1986. She is co-owner of Good Life Catering, and previously owned the Good Life Cafe. Jenny is a passionate advocate for local and sustainably raised foods, and has been working directly with farmers and producers since she opened her restaurant in 1993. Jenny has been teaching cooking and nutrition to adults and children at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, in the Twin Cities Food Coops and with Twin Cities schools since the mid 90s. She is a 2009 recipient of an Archibald Bush Foundation Leadership Fellowship and recently completed her Master's Degree in Public Health Nutrition at the University of Minnesota. Her first cookbook "Cooking up the Good Life", which emphasizes local, seasonal whole foods cooking for families, was released in April of 2011. She last wrote about her Argentinian CSA in Globally Aware, Part 3.