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When José Barriga worked as an interpreter in a regional hospital, he regularly saw a cycle of poor health. This disease mainly affected his Latino patients and was caused by the food they ate.

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Nutrition, cooking, and daily life were new to many of them in this country. They had arrived here as adults, and the experience was very different than in their home countries. But many still cooked and ate in the same way as at home.

Doctors suggested that patients should avoid their traditional food. But that was not an alternative, even if they agreed in hospital.
At the same time, Barriga realized that something had to change, but perhaps not so drastically.

That was the birth of the Cocinas Saludables program in Chelsea, which is already in its second year. The program is a partnership between Cambridge Food Lab, Chelsea Collaborative, and Healthy Chelsea.

Grisalda Valesquez is checking out a pack of garlic.
Griselda Valesquez is checking out a pack of garlic.

Complete Change of Diet Is Not Acceptable

“I’ve found in interpreting that there is a big problem in the communication between doctors and the Latino community,” he said. “The doctor thinks you need to change your eating habits. Usually, you suggest cooking brown rice or eating other foods. They have the best intentions, but their language is not very effective. I had recognized a cycle. I saw mothers with diabetes bringing overweight children. The problems that plagued them, for the most part, were either due to the food they ate or to their preparation techniques. It’s a huge, serious public health problem in the Latino community.”

Trying to Combine the Best of Both Worlds

They want to have their Arroz con Habichuelas and also eat them.


Anais Caraballo of the Collaborative explained that she is excited to organize the course for a second year. Another reason for her is that she sees great value in educating people about how to cook traditional food healthily.

“I think it’s an essential aspect to come from Puerto Rico,” she said, “It’s a great program that helps the community become aware of healthier eating and cooking methods. But at the same time, they can still enjoy dishes with a cultural background that have a place in their diet.”
On Monday, Barriga and a group of 10 people met in the Collaborative to talk about food and cooking and how people view nutrition. It followed a trip to Stop & Compare – a loyal partner of the program. There the students walked with Barriga through the corridors to see the ingredients of their traditional dishes.

Equipped with materials from their group and the Barriga Council, they looked at the ingredients they usually buy and the healthier alternatives. In this way, they did not have to give up the food that meant so much to them, but they could also ensure that they were eating healthily.

Leslie Garcia examines the brown Goya rice together with Grisalda Valesquez.
Leslie Garcia examines the brown Goya rice together with Griselda Valesquez.

Focus Adapted to Group Individuality

Barriga said he was adapting the group to the culture. If there are many different Caribbean cultures in the group – such as the Puerto Ricans – he also talks about different ways of cooking, as well as the use of healthier oils in cooking the food.

“The Caribbean community is a fried food that is a constant in the Caribbean diet,” he said. “My proposal is not to offer 100% healthy alternatives. If you come and say that you have to change everything you eat, people will not. I offer them a few changes that will help their overall health in the long run. Thereby I try to be realistic. For the Caribbean chefs, I say they should occasionally do without fried food. They should try to fry more to consume less oil.”

Another problem is that many people who have just come from outside the United States arrive and find food cheaper and more accessible. For example, a family in El Salvador can only eat meat once a week. In the US, however, they find that they can eat it seven days a week, which they do.

“If you grow up poor and food was problematic, come to the US – and the food is plentiful,” he said.

Physical Activity Is also More Limited

Many people have practiced a similar diet in their home countries, but they often had to walk or cycle many kilometers every day to complete simple tasks. This active lifestyle and different climate have helped to regulate nutrition.


Once here in Chelsea, they are far less active and find a climate that is inhospitable for them six months a year.

“I call this the food culture conflict,” he said. “They have no cars in many Latin American countries. They run or cycle when they have to go somewhere. People come here and become overweight because it is very comfortable. They go everywhere, and there is a lack of physical activity – an important symptom of being overweight.”

Next Monday, Cocinas class students collect the rest of their ingredients and cook traditional food with the right touch.

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