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Olivewood Gardens’ Kitchenistas Serve as Ambassadors for Health

In support of Hispanic Heritage Month, which takes place Sept. 15 through Oct. 15, learn how local nonprofit organizations are serving San Diego’s diverse Latinx community.

When you arrive at Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center in National City, your senses are assaulted: by the bounty of colorful fruits and vegetables growing in the gardens, the laughter of children on a field trip and – if you’re lucky – the smells wafting from the “Cooking for Salud“ class that takes place in the teaching kitchen of the property’s Victorian house.

It was these moments that captured the attention and support of local filmmaker, philanthropist and SDF fund advisor Mary Ann Beyster 10 years ago.

“I was amazed at the property itself and the leadership there,” Beyster said. “They were building programs from scratch with the community. I stayed in contact with them.”

That initial visit lead to additional visits and engagement with her family, such as her brother volunteering as garden and composting staff, and eventually to a short film and then feature documentary film that has since gone ‘round the world.

Starting from Scratch

Olivewood Gardens

The historic Victorian home and the surrounding property that comprises Olivewood Gardens was donated by local philanthropist Christy Walton to the International Community Foundation in 2006. In 2010, it started its nutrition and education programs.

The programs started with young school children attending National City schools. National City is a predominantly Latino and Filipino community, with a high proportion of chronic disease among its residents, including hypertension, heart disease and diabetes.

From transitional kindergarten through high school, there is an Olivewood Gardens program for every child. Olivewood Gardens helps with a school gardens program at the elementary schools in National School District, every fourth grader in National City visits the gardens throughout the academic year, and there’s an internship and leadership development program for high schoolers. Since its start, San Diego Foundation has supported Olivewood Gardens with grants through its Opening the Outdoors and Age-Friendly Communities initiatives and the San Diego COVID-19 Community Response Fund.

But to truly transform the eating habits and improve the chronic health issues of the surrounding community, Olivewood leaders were asked by the community if they could do more with the adults in young people’s lives. That “more” was the “Cooking with Salud” class.

Cooking on Film

The cooking class focused on transforming traditional, family recipes with healthier ingredients and cooking techniques. Oftentimes, those healthier ingredients included produce from Olivewood Gardens, which includes eight acres of growing space for vegetables and fruit.

“Cooking for Salud is an eight-week behavior modification program for adults that started as a result of feedback from parents,” said Jennifer Nation, Executive Director of Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center. “[The program is] rooted in research and data, and it’s also grown organically from the participants who provide feedback and are also co-creators of the curriculum. When participants graduate, they become Kitchenistas.

The graduates of that first class, all of them local Latina mothers, were dubbed Kitchenistas. Since that initial class, the Kitchenistas ranks have grown to more than 300 community volunteers and leaders who raise awareness and advocate for healthy eating and local food resources.

“People want to continuously learn and grow and become advocates and food justice champions as a result of the community building that happens in that program,” Nation said.

It was these same Kitchenistas that caught the attention of Beyster.

“I attended an event [at Olivewood Gardens] where I heard about the Kitchenistas program from a recent graduate,” Beyster said. “[The class] and support among the community of Kitchenistas helped her improve her health and strengthened her relationship with her granddaughter.”

This set a dialog in motion that included the program graduate’s family, other Kitchenistas, Olivewood Gardens staff, Beyster and her fellow filmmaker, David Romero, who grew up near National City. The initial documentary was a 24-minute short, titled “The Kitchenistas of National City (KNC),” and spotlighted the grandmother/granddaughter journey in creating new traditions by creating healthy eating habits.

The short film premiered in New York City and next screened in London at the Gates Foundation’s Global Health Film Festival. It received multiple awards through its film festival run, and was nominated for an Imagen Award, which is considered the “Golden Globes for Latino-based films.”  The film aired nationally on PBS, where it continues to be available for streaming.

Going Global

But that short documentary wasn’t enough for Beyster.

“With a feature, we could go more in depth on the elements of food as medicine,” Beyster said. “[The longer version] also shows the love and sisterhood developed within and among the ‘generation’ cohorts. It’s more than nutrition education program – [the Cooking with Salud class] builds a holistic view on health, a strong sense of community, and pathways for personal change and leadership.”

Released on PBS in 2021, the 56-minute film has been airing on hundreds of PBS and public TV stations (check local listings) reaching small cities to large metropolitan areas across every region of the nation. In addition to film festivals and film awards, the film has been featured in numerous medical and public health professional conferences.

The feature film is also now available for rent via several streaming services. For more information, visit The Kitchenistas website.

Ways to Give

Olivewood Gardens is just one of the thousands of nonprofits improving lives for San Diegans. If you would like to learn how you, like Mary Ann Beyster and many other philanthropists, can support San Diego nonprofits through San Diego Foundation, explore our Ways to Give.

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