Centro Latino Nurtures New Needs

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COLUMBIA - Tomatoes, vegan cheese, strawberries and whole grain bread are amongst a cart full of items being wheeled down the aisles of Hy Vee. "Oh we need lettuce, bananas and the meat," said Eduardo Crespi, program director of Centro Latino as he mentally checked items off an invisible list.

The cart of nutritious goodies isn't filled with food to stock Crespi's personal refrigerator at home, but to fill the bellies of children participating in Centro Latino's Kids in the Kitchen Program. For two years now, the program has been teaching children the importance of choosing the rights foods, while getting them directly involved in the cooking process.

March's program is especially important. It was the first time for it to take place in the Centro's new building located on Garth. "The building is in the heart of the community and it's allowing to reach new audiences," Crespi said.
Andre Edwards, a chef for Centro Latino, smiled as he recounted how Crespi brought him on board as a staff member. "He knew my mom. There was a vegan event going on and he called me."

Now Edwards helps fulfill the mission of Centro Latino, teaching kids how to cut pineapple, slice tomatoes and cut avocado. Knowing the basics of healthy eating is something Edwards said he wishes he would have known growing up. "I probably would have eaten a lot better. I probably would have steer clear of a lot of junk."

Steering clear from junk food and instead opting for fruits and vegetables is the goal of the Kid's in the Kitchen Program and so far it seems to be working.

"I think it sets an example for the future generation. I remember when I was little and I saw a big kid eating something, I would go ask my parents for something too," said Sean Garfias, a Centro Latino student.

It is not only Latino kids who are getting a first hand lesson in health. Residents from the surrounding area who are mostly black have found a home at the center and a place to learn more about how to prevent diseases that affect minorities at higher rates, like diabetes and heart disease.

Michael Pryor, a borderline diabetic, said, "A lot of us grew up eating pork and all different types of food that wasn't healthy for us. We didn't realize that was detrimental to our health."

Crespi said the impact Centro Latino makes transcends the borders of the United States. It's a model program internationally.
"There are a lot of experiences that I am going to borrow from the way things are done here, which can be implanted in our country," said Hassan Sheba, a national coordinator for the American Field Service in Kenya.
In countries like Kenya, there is a great demand for work like that of Crespi and his volunteers.

"Volunteerism is slowly dying. People don't have that energy to provide volunteer work. We constantly have to remind them that this is something they need to do for the community, Sheba said."

"Surely it's something we need to copy."

Even with others looking to Centro Latino as a model, Crespi said his work is not done. There are challenges that come with expanding its services to more than the Latino population.

"But it's a nice challenge we have," Crespi remarked.