Mom's Better Way to Involve the Community
Kitchen Chronicles: Thoughtfulness, Sensitivity, and Engagement Served up in Every Dish
Local farmers and farmers markets
CentroNía; Washington, D.C.
It may not be true in every home, but it is often the case that the kitchen is where people tend to gather and socialize. Life gets nourished in the kitchen. When Beatriz “BB” Otero, founder of CentroNía, a bilingual early childcare center in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, DC, moved CentroNía into a new building to meet local demand for affordable early childcare, she insisted on having an onsite kitchen. There, staff could prepare meals for children, weaning them off the menus of catering services that included flavored milk, pizza, hot dogs, and French fries. Not only were these food options nutritionally substandard, they disconnected the children from the rich cultural heritage of food that their immigrant families brought with them to the US.
Columbia Heights has 32,000 residents within a space of just over half a square mile, making it one of the most population dense areas in the DC metro region. Sixty-two percent of children up to the age of 18 live at or below 200 percent of the poverty line. There are over 1,200 violent crimes per every 10,000 residents. CentroNía has always been keenly sensitive to the economic realities of the parents they serve, so when it wanted to introduce fresh meals and snacks to the children, CentroNía focused its gaze on the world of parents. Beatriz “Bea” Zuluaga joined the CentroNía team in 2006 and enthusiastically led the health and wellness charge at the childcare center. Zuluaga was thoughtful about the impact of food changes, and how those are connected to organizational culture as well as personal feelings and identity. She and her small team engaged in an observation project for a year, noting health practices, behaviors, and choices at CentroNía. Based on these observations, Zuluaga began making some simple changes, but with firm, consistently- applied rules. This approach would be the hallmark of her style: observation, reflection, small changes, consistency, and engagement with students, teachers, kitchen staff, and families to create meaningful, attuned changes in behavior.
CentroNía would eventually develop an on-site garden led by one of Otero’s daughters and her friend, who formed the nonprofit City Blossoms. The urban garden, a success long before urban agriculture became a trend, incorporated a garden curriculum with classroom learning to teach children about where food comes from and healthy food choices. CentroNía developed an “I Want to Be Healthy!” curriculum with songs and dances that helped
young children learn the importance of healthy eating and food knowledge. Parents noticed changing behaviors and food preferences at home, with one mother saying of dinner time, “My children say something is missing if we don’t have veggies.” CentroNía was recognized for its efforts when First Lady Michelle Obama raised it as model at the launch of her Let’s Move! Campaign in 2011. Today it is beginning to deliver farm fresh food boxes to home care centers in order to further promote healthy choices while generating organizational income. What remains remarkable about CentroNía’s story is that every decision point in building a farm to ECE project was anchored in the reality of family’s lives. In that respect, it is an organic, local triumph.