Women-led group aims to increase food sovereignty and access to organic produce among South Seattle Latinos

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Amanda Zenteno playfully bickered as her quick fingers deftly tied a rope to a hanging bar to hold the tomato plants.

Telma Aguilar and Silvia Jeronimo, planting vegetables between nearby rows of onions, spoke to each other in their native Pocomam language. d’Aguilar a 2-year-old boy tried to replicate their moves by lifting a shovel almost the size of his body.

Four women tend the 600 square feet of city-owned land at Marra Farm in South Park’s Marra-Desimone Park on which the community food project known as Salsa de la Vida is based.

Marra Farm supports land for a P-Patch as well as large farms, which involve several community organizations, as well as Salsa de la Vida.

Promotoras, which serves as a liaison between the community and resources, took over the project around 2018 from Monica Perez, a longtime community organizer, after she and other leaders were approved to use some of the land. owned by the city that sat unused for about a year.

Salsa de la Vida was born out of a project centered on food justice and is dedicated to dismantling some of the barriers that keep low-income Latino families from accessing the organic produce they use in their cooking.

Before taking over the project, Zenteno herself struggled to access organic produce due to high prices and lack of availability near her home in South Park.

“It’s a beautiful thing to connect the community to existing resources,” Zenteno said.

The Salsa de la Vida section is divided into sections, with the area closest to the entrance being dedicated to medicinal herbs.

Rows of onions and other vegetables line the field, only interrupted by crates filled with heads of lettuce. On the west side of the garden is a small wooden shed housing chilli plants.

Zenteno, Aguilar, Jeronimo and another companion, Santa Pablo, hope to establish Salsa de la Vida as an official gardening cooperative that would continue to provide members for people to buy boxes of fresh vegetables and donate to food banks. or to organizations helping low-income families. access to healthy foods.

The group’s goal, since the founding of Salsa de la Vida, has been to fill the gaps in access to healthy foods prevalent among immigrant and Latino communities.

Origins

Perez said she began efforts to involve South Park’s Latino community in planting and farming around 2013, when there was little to no access for Latinos to plant at Marra Farm.

She and other community leaders created several projects, one of which involved families growing vegetables collectively for a season in the P-Patch area of ​​the farm.

Trust between organizers and the community has flourished through these efforts, Perez said.

“We used to say, ‘Come on, you’re going to enjoy it and there’s purslane growing all around,’ which often amazed them,” she said, adding that the plant grows wildly and is grown in Mexico and other countries.

Perez said she then learned that a space exclusively for growing produce for sale, where Salsa de la Vida is currently located, was opening in 2017 and efforts to create the project had begun.

Organizers held meetings, sought grants and connected with existing groups to access resources and grow Salsa de la Vida, Perez said.

Zenteno then came on the scene and took over that project in 2018 alongside other promotoras — most of them stayed, Perez said, and everything else just lined up and turned into an effort. led by women.

“My ideology has always been to create opportunities and involve new people,” Perez said. “It was a bit painful to leave the project but it’s part of the organization.”

During the first years, five families participated in the cultivation of the products and the salsa de la Vida, which allowed the project to develop. The idea was to keep inviting families, but unfortunately there wasn’t much response when the pandemic hit, Zenteno said.

People were initially enthusiastic about growing food like in their home country, but became too tired to continue due to family obligations, work or other commitments, said Luz Cardenas, l one of the original members alongside Roxana Rivera who no longer works the plots.

The women cleaned up the section intended for Salsa de la Vida, a massive effort as many plants and weeds had reclaimed space, Zenteno said.

The work turned into a paid job a few times a week, which still left Zenteno and the other women time to drive their children to school or take care of them.

The promotoras worked to inspire members of the Latin American community to grow their own fresh produce and bridge the inaccessibility to organic produce among low-income families.

Aguilar started working with Salsa de la Vida last year and averages about 20 hours a week, which leaves him enough time for his 2-year-old son.

While she likes the ease with which the work is done, she mostly enjoys being outdoors and working the land, just like she did in her Guatemalan home, she said.

“We used to walk around in the hills and tend to our milpas,” Aguilar said of the traditional regional vegetable intercropping system practiced throughout Mexico and Central America. “Work here is like that.”

Aguilar learned how to plant and grow food — corn, carrots and other staples — from her grandfather, she said.

Jeronimo, Aguilar’s mother-in-law, started working at Salsa de la Vida a year before Aguilar and said she liked being able to work at her own pace, comparing it to the rush fast food restaurants where she worked for over a decade.

The job gives her the flexibility to continue to be there for her 4-year-old son, whom she cared for full-time before joining the project.

Jeronimo, who has been growing his own vegetables in his garden for years, enjoys learning new techniques for growing produce and having the opportunity to spend most of his time outdoors.

learn to grow

The women were able to cultivate Salsa de la Vida in part with the help of Villa Communitaria, a non-profit organization focused on equity and social justice, which provided grants, workshops, licensing assistance and other resources, Zenteno said.

Prior to joining Salsa de la Vida, she was already working in community organizing, volunteering with organizations such as Villa Communitaria and Duwamish Affordable Housing.

“Most of the time everything was new to us and we knew we had a lot to learn,” she said.

Growing in urban spaces like Seattle is very different from the kind of planting some women have done in their Latin American homelands, Zenteno said.

But they adapted to climatic differences and immersed themselves in learning about soil and plants.

They grow cucumbers, zucchini, carrots, beets, lettuce, green beans and all the salsa essentials – red tomatoes, tomatillos, onions, cilantro and chili peppers.

Besides vegetables, they also grow medicinal herbs, including chamomile, salvia, calendula, lavender, and epazote.

The group has access to a greenhouse donated by the University of Washington, also used by other groups, to plant peppers, tomatoes and other sensitive plants.

Creation of community places

The space is available to all members of the community, especially Latino and immigrant families, Zenteno said, which hopes to widen its field of action.

Already, several organizations have helped stimulate and support their work, Zenteno said.

“We feel heard, but we still have a long way to go,” she said.

A central objective is to obtain more Indigenous people from Guatemala are involved, a community whose population has grown in the Seattle area in recent years, Zenteno said.

Whereas Perez said organizing may not be easy, with organizers often faced with classism, racism and other barriers, creating access to resources is “beautiful”. Much like “planting seeds” for others to take up the challenge, she said.

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