Nutritious food is a critical part of not just individual health, but the well-being of entire communities. As a student in Utah State University’s master of public health nutrition program, Anna Cheal already knew the difference healthy food could make. When an opportunity came up to work with Proyecto Florecer, a nonprofit organization in Medellin, Colombia, Cheal put her knowledge into action.
Proyecto Florecer empowers women to become leaders in their own communities and overcome problems like poverty, crime, abusive relationships, unemployment, early pregnancy, undereducation, discrimination and sex trafficking. Cheal worked with the organization’s community kitchen where women and their families can eat and learn about cooking and food handling.
“I was asked to create a six-month menu based on traditional Colombian recipes that highlighted produce that could be grown in Proyecto Florecer’s own garden,” Cheal said. “I was also involved in the garden planning and implementation process.”
Cheal collected nutrient-dense recipes from Colombia and neighboring Venezuela, where many refugees in Medellin come from. Many recipes came from the women at Proyecto Florecer themselves.
“It was important to involve the local women in the planning process since they’re the ones who will prepare the meals in the community kitchen,” Cheal said. “Working with them and other volunteers was an amazing experience.”
Cheal also worked on a nutrition guide for pre- and postnatal women. It included health tips pulled from an extensive review of peer-reviewed journals, government agencies and institution websites as well as recipes from food blogs that highlighted vitamins and minerals. Each recipe then went through several rounds of reviews before a native Spanish speaker translated it. The final guide delivered to Proyecto Florecer’s co-founder and chief program officer, Erin Colton-Enburg, included eight breakfast and 10 lunch and dinner options as well as kid-friendly recipes.
Completing the projects wasn’t always easy. Because of the size of Proyecto Florecer and the need to consult with the organization’s all-Colombian advisory council, it was often necessary for Cheal to wait for approval in her work. However, doing so helped to win over public and financial support and identify the best ways to meaningfully help the community. Cheal cited the master of public health nutrition program in readying her for the experience.
“Utah State did a wonderful job preparing me to work independently with diverse organizations,” she said. "There’s no ‘one-size fits all’ when it comes to projects, so it’s especially important to be culturally aware and sensitive to the needs of the population you’re working with. What may work here in Utah may not work in other countries.”
Cheal graduated from Utah State this spring, and her experience in Colombia proved to be one of the best parts of graduate school.
“I absolutely loved working with Proyecto Florecer,” Cheal said. “Seeing so many women and volunteers with different backgrounds gather together to connect and grow was inspiring. I'm continually amazed by what the organization has to offer, like the community kitchen, English classes, workshops and other events, and by the professionalism of everyone there. Working with the organization was definitely a highlight of my time in Medellin!”
Unsurprisingly, Cheal’s work also left its mark on her own taste palate.
“As a big foodie who loved diving into traditional Colombian and Venezuelan cuisine, choosing a single favorite recipe is really difficult,” Cheal said. “I really fell in love with the way lentils and plantains are prepared in Colombia, so any of the lentil soups or a classic sancocho soup would have to be a favorite of mine.”
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