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The no-fuss menu for the March 25 nutrition education and healthy cooking class included refreshing cucumber water, a tasty roasted corn, pepper and nopales salad, and peanut butter-fresh fruit crepes — and it had some Our Saviour Center food bank visitors salivating.

Teaching and facilitating the class at the El Monte center were Steve Tarpasso, 28, and Erica Nieves, 25, who joined the Seeds of Hope staff in January. The “farm the diocese” agency hired them after receiving a million-dollar, three-year grant award to offer nutrition and cooking classes at 15 diocesan congregations.

Tarpasso rubbed the nopales, or cactus leaves, with canola oil, popped them a 450-degree oven for five minutes each side, offering nutrition education and healthy tips while chopping red onions and red peppers, jalapenos and tomatoes in the center’s kitchen.

Nieves, meanwhile, distributed cups of cucumber water, served as Spanish-language translator and calculated per-serving costs: for the salad, about 80 cents and the dessert, about $1.35 per person.

A slight alteration to the peanut butter, banana, strawberry, yogurt, honey and cinnamon crepe to include whole-wheat tortillas became an example of “making half your grains whole,” Tarpasso said.

“It’s as simple as looking at the ingredient list when you go to buy a loaf of bread,” he told about eight class participants. “Buy brown rice instead of white, or whole wheat pasta instead of white. It’s a very easy change.” Other quick tips followed, about portion sizes, purchasing low-sodium foods and “eating the rainbow … carrots, red peppers, green cucumbers, all the whole rainbow. Before dinner, if you’re feeling really hungry, we recommend eating a piece of orange or apple first.”

A New Jersey native, Tarpasso has a bachelor’s degree in finance from Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and a master’s degree in public health from Tulane University in New Orleans. He has done disaster relief case management with Americorps, in places like Texas, after Hurricane Ike and with Rebuilding Oakland doing green energy efficiency work.

“Everything I’ve done shaped where I am right now,” said Tarpasso, who is the nutrition education program coordinator for Seeds of Hope.
Raised in Los Angeles, Nieves is a graduate of Cal State Northridge’s public health undergraduate program and previously has worked in after school programs for at-risk children.

She said that, on her first day as nutrition education program assistant with Seed of Hope, “I took off running.”

That day, she and Tarpasso met with clergy from congregations included in county census tracts where poverty rates often translate to increased risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and other devastating chronic illness for residents.

Tarpasso was already brainstorming recipe ideas for an upcoming class at Christ the Good Shepherd Church in Los Angeles.

“Someone from the food bank called and told me they’d be giving out pinto beans, brown rice, carrots, cabbage. I’m going to create a recipe based on what they’re giving out. It may be a bean salad or something warm with the rice,” he said.

On Fridays, they volunteer at the Cathedral Center food bank to promote a Thursday evening class there. They are also in the process of scheduling site visits and class offerings.

Expanded offerings, new programs

Seeds of Hope executive director Tim Alderson said he is thrilled at the additional services and staff. The million dollar, three-year grant, through Los Angeles county, is part of the Farm Bill Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and is intended to positively impact those living in poverty, identified as most at-risk for chronic illness.

“What we’re doing is nutrition education and cooking demonstrations, that sort of thing,” he said. “The county wants us to make impacts at the individual level and institutional level on nutrition and fitness. We’re partnering with the Jubilee Consortium to include fitness and exercise.”

Jubilee Consortium communications director Payton Hoegh will serve half-time with Seeds of Hope, he said.

“We are working at institutional level to rethink how we are with food when we’re serving food, sharing food as a community, food that we distribute through our food pantries or as we provide meals for folks, improving the nutritional value of all those things,” Alderson added.

In addition to Our Saviour Center, participating Los Angeles-area churches include All Saints, Highland Park; Epiphany, Lincoln Heights; the Cathedral Center Congregation, Echo Park; Trinity, Melrose; St. Mary’s, Mariposa; Christ the Good Shepherd; St. Philip’s and St. John’s ProCathedral. Others include St. Paul’s, Pomona; St. Barnabas, Pasadena; St. Stephen’s, Hollywood; St. Clement’s, Huntington Park; St. Timothy’s, Compton; and St. Luke’s, Long Beach.

Alderson said that about half those congregations already have vegetable and fruit gardens. “Some need improvements; where we don’t have gardens we will be putting them in as part of the program,” he added.

The number of diocesan congregations with gardens has more than doubled just since the annual convention meeting of the diocese in December, Alderson said. “Going into convention there were approximately 35 churches that had gardens growing food. We’re now up to 77. We’ve been working on mentor relationships between those parishes with gardens and those who’d like to have them.”

Similarly, the number of congregations participating in food pantries or providing meals has also increased, from about 50 to 60 with more indicating they want to be involved. “People are getting inspired to do this work,” he said.

He expects a new partner, the Kounkuey Design Initiative, urban planners and landscape architects who have transformed impoverished areas globally through community organizing and empowerment, to work with Seeds of Hope projects, he said.

Seeds of Hope has also received funding for a Farm Advisor Training Program through the Episcopal Church. “We will train a corps of experts to be available to everybody around the diocese … for workshops, trainings, consulting, to help with whatever farming issues may arise,” he said.

Use water better by growing food

The state’s extreme drought has also prompted him to advocate with the city of Los Angeles to establish agricultural water rates for community gardens and urban farms, which could reduce some water bills by almost one-half, he said.

“For all of us doing the work of trying to grow affordable healthy food, water can become really expensive, particularly when you have to pay municipal rates,” he said. “Usually, agricultural rates are substantially lower. We are suggesting there be an agricultural rate in Los Angeles County and there’s a great deal of support for it.”

Paradoxically, drought seasons are the time when churches and other organizations most need to be gardening and growing fruits and vegetables, in spite of the water needed to do so, he said.

“Now, more than ever we ought to be doing this work and now more than ever there ought to be incentives because the drought affects farmers more than anybody which ends up affecting the price of food.

“If we’re doing food justice work, we’re making sure that everybody has enough food to eat and enough nutritious food to maintain a healthy diet. The folks that are most vulnerable during drought season are those without affordable access to food, and those are the folks we’re reaching.

“Our neighbors are struggling in this way now, more than ever, and we ought to be growing this food and the city ought to be creating incentives for us to do so.”

He added that, given California’s desert climate, “the only morally ethically justifiable way to use water on our properties is by irrigating food or planting drought-tolerant plants. Far from being wasteful, such use of water is a wise use. The water goes to feed people, it goes into plants and we eat those so we’re actually caring for community when we use water that way.”

He said that the essential questions Seeds of Hope is asking of everyone are: How are we using our property? How can we rethink our resources? What else could we be doing? How could we be doing it better? How do we justify ornamental landscaping? We should be growing food.