In the wake of rising death rates among indigenous and Hispanic communities because of heart disease, diabetes and obesity, UA professor Roberto Rodriguez decided to create a class that focuses on cultural nutrition.
The concept of cultural nutrition came from his research on the 7,000-year-old bond that people in Mesoamerica have with their use and worship of maize, or corn.
Rodriguez, of the department of Mexican American and Raza studies, said the relationship still is evident today in people's dietary habits, cooking methods and food preferences.
Food that was once considered sacred and medicinal, Rodriguez said, has been modified, commoditized and its nutrition sacrificed. Traditional foods such as corn now often are prepared with lard and cooked or heated in oil, he said.
These changes have contributed to a host of health issues within the communities. Data from the Centers for Disease Control show the diabetes death rate for Hispanics/Latinos was 1.6 times higher than for non-Hispanic whites. In men ages 20-74, Mexican Americans had a higher occurrence of being overweight (75.8 percent) and obesity (30.5 percent) from 2001-2004 than non-Hispanic white men (71.1 percent overweight; 31.0 percent obese).
Students in Rodriguez's cultural nutrition class have been treated to lectures by food advocates including UA professor Gary Nahban, founder of Native Seeds, a conservationist and food and farming advocate who conducts research on food genres and cultural diversity. The students have also taken trips to local restaurants and grocery stores to investigate foods found regionally and, most commonly, in the Tucson community.
Rodriguez envisioned the community element as a key principal for the class. Students who have been researching traditional food and studying health disparities and their roots now will be sharing their knowledge with community centers and local classrooms.
The class will exhibit its work from 8-10:30 a.m. April 24 during a food fair and exhibit at the El Rio Neighborhood Center. The class will begin the day with a community walk from Joaquin Murrietta Park to the El Rio Neighborhood Center.
Class members will serve a healthy breakfast, provide cookbooks, showcase the nutritional values of traditional foods and how to prepare them, and have a food fight.
The food fight will be in lucha libre wrestling format with costumed classmates wrestling one another dressed as Tofu Girl, Nopal Woman and Soyrizo Woman who will take on Chorizo Man and Sonora Hotdog Man.
The walk, food exhibit and breakfast are free and open to the Tucson and Southern Arizona community.
The students have recruited sponsors from area restaurants. One of the sponsors, Calpollli Teoxicalli, will host a health run from A Mountain to El Rio at 6:30 a.m. before the food fair and exhibit begins.
Exercise is important to the discussion of health disparities because eating healthy can be expensive, said Lori Murrietta, a Mexican American studies major. Exercise, she said, can offset some of the negative effects of eating unhealthy food.
Murrietta, half Yaqui and half Tohono O'Odham, said the class has changed her perspective on food, noting for instance, the lack of healthy food options in poor neighborhoods. She has quit drinking soda and eating fast food and has changed her diet to include more vegetables and less processed food.
"Eating healthy means cutting down on fast food, drinking more water and exercising. It can be as simple as reading labels to make better food choices," Murrietta said.
During the food fair at El Rio, she will present research on the nutritional and medicinal benefits of nopales - the prepared pads of the prickly pear cactus, which research shows helps with diabetes and controlling glucose levels. She also will showcase the benefits of mesquite pods, which she found have been used to make flour that is more easily digestible. When added with water she found, the powder from mesquite has been used medicinally for pink eye.
"This class has made me more conscious of what I eat," said Jesus Castellanos, a Latin American studies major. "By sharing with the community, I feel like I have contributed something greater than simply turning in a paper for a grade."