Coming from England, nutritional education is something I’ve always taken for granted. The fond old days of the food wheel – you know, the colorful one, which as a child seems 99 percent fruit and veggies, and 1 percent pizza – stuck with me (mostly) throughout my teenage years. However, this is not the case all over the world. Many people, young and old, have never even seen this mystical “eat well plate,” and the idea of getting carbohydrates from anything other than tortas fritas is not one they ponder often, if ever.
Alicia Amende arrived in Buenos Aires back in 2012 from England with very few ideas of where her journey was going to lead. Her Spanish extended not far beyond “una cerveza por favor,” back then, making her journey ever since then even more remarkable. She found herself exploring different areas of Argentina, and while fully supporting the work of other charities to provide food for children from less privileged backgrounds, she was struck by the lack of nutritional information that was going into many of these ventures.
One hot summer’s day, Alicia was working with the charity Education, Technology and Food (ETF), hosting an event for the children who live in the marginalized communities surrounding Buenos Aires, such as La Matanza. It was during this event that Alicia experienced a moment of both clarity yet sadness. “I was playing with a little girl and she asked me if we could play the ‘conversation game’. I responded saying ‘Of course how do we play?’ She told me I had to ask questions and she would answer – yes that was the game! I thought I’d start with a simple question so I asked her ‘What is your favorite vegetable?’ With that, she turned to her friend sitting next to her and said; ‘Wait, what’s a vegetable again?’ – I suppose this was one of the game changing moments for me when I knew I had to do something to help.”
It doesn’t take a highly trained nutritionist to work out that feeding malnourished children a steady diet of sugar, carbohydrates and refined flours is not going to provide them with the nutrients they actually need. A child lacking the correct nutrients will not only experience symptoms of malnourishment such as the weight loss, inability to regulate body temperature, and a lack of general energy, but this in turn, will mean that the children will lack concentration, as well as experiencing limited desire for social interaction and a numbed sense of curiosity. Added to this, is the fact that these energy-intensive foods, produced on such large scales, have further negative environmental effects, which combined with bad eating habits, will only further perpetuate the never-ending poverty cycle which manifests itself in these under-privileged communities.
Alicia decided that she was going to change track and try to tackle the problem from a different approach, take the bull by the horns if you will. She knew that she needed to teach people to feed themselves more healthily and value the importance of injecting color into their diets. One of Alicia’s main mottos summed it all up very well: “Nature has given us a clue about what to eat. Why not pay attention?”
The Argentine diet was historically heavily influenced by Italians – primarily due to the influx of from that country in the late 19th century. However as Alicia quite rightly pointed out to me, it seems only certain parts of that culture’s well balanced diet actually made it across the Atlantic. “The Argentine diet has fused with a very classic Italian diet, lots of pasta and pizza for the most part. But the real Italian diet is full of lots of fresh fruits and vegetables as well. In Argentina, it’s almost like they’ve adopted the classic recipes, but left little space for the fresh fruit and veg!”
Her work started very ad hoc. “At first I was just taking ingredients out to these communities and cooking,” she explains. “But soon I saw the kids were really interested, so I started doing it every Sunday, until I realized that this was something the children were really interested in.” Alicia knew that she had to continue on this quest to become the nutritional ‘Buddha’ for these children, who had up until now, known very little life beyond potato chips and Coca-Cola.
In order to fund these invaluable workshops, Alicia knew she had to find a way to sustain the project, and this is where her pop up restaurant “Delicias de Alicia” comes into the picture. Alicia, along with the help of her small, yet ever-growing team, runs a series of paid dinner parties, as well as catering events for up to 350 people, of which 100 percent of the profits go toward the funding of her workshops.
Starting in June 2015, the restaurant provided a cozy yet nutritionally stimulating evening, for parties of up to 20 people. Three courses of home-made vegetarian cuisine, accompanied by local wines also provided the perfect opportunity for Alicia to spread the word and educate her guests about her flourishing enterprise. “As well as providing the classes for the children that we feel are most needed, we also try and promote information on healthy eating via the restaurants. The dinners aren’t to financially support our work, but opportunities for people to come and eat and more importantly learn about what we are doing, about good food, about nutrition, and what we can do to help.”
Alicia’s specially designed workshops, over a series of six sessions, teach the children about how they can incorporate healthy food into their everyday diets, but still utilizing the limited resources to which they have access. The entire course is based on the “nutritional plate,” which highlights the quantities of which food groups they should be eating every day. The classes cover a different food group each time, starting with fruit, then vegetables, flours, sugars and finishing with protein. “The first thing we do, is teach the children the ‘basics’ about a sustainable diet, for example highlighting the percentage that fruit and vegetables should contribute to your diet, which is 50 percent.”
They are then taught how to make simple dishes, such as fruit salad, and how to find and prepare vegetables they can use in other recipes. As the classes develop, the children are shown how to turn these ingredients into balanced, nutritious meals, for example, a lentil burger, served on a brown bread roll with lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese. The idea of the course is that after the six sessions, the children will be equipped with the skills they need to cook, as well as the transferrable knowledge which they can pass on to their friends, families, and future children. As Alicia puts it: “It’s vital for the children to not only understand what they should be eating but also to understand why it is important and most importantly, how they can incorporate these recipes and skills into their everyday lives.”
For now, Alicia is very happy with the way her project has taken shape. From what started out as a volunteering venture, has ended up becoming Alicia’s whole life’s work. When I asked Alicia what her plans were for the future of Delicias de Alicia, she responded by saying that: “the next big step would be to try and work the classes into a more set curriculum that can be taught in schools across Argentina, as at the moment we only offer them in a handful of local community centers.”
Alicia estimates they have already seen over 350 children through the course, and with more budding volunteers emerging with enthusiasm and fresh ideas all of the time, it’s not hard to see how this venture will keep growing, one balanced meal at a time.
Needless to say, the main aim of the project is to provide the funding for workshops which have the potential to change the lives of countless children in and around Buenos Aires. However, Alicia is also passionate about raising awareness about the importance of balanced, sustainable eating habits across a much wider bracket of Argentines. According to the FAO, in a year an Argentine will eat around 65 kg of meat, while the world average is 41.3kg per capita.
Alicia believes the problem doesn’t just culminate in the villas (slums) in Buenos Aires, but is more of a general phenomenon. “I definitely think that food is an issue for everybody and it isn’t just an issue for the kids who are living in the low-income neighborhoods. You just need to look at the vast consumption of gaseosas (carbonated beverages) which is present in all different communities at all different levels of society, and you can see this.”
From her point of view, a lack of nutritional education is visible by just walking down a street in Buenos Aires. Fast food shops are rife and the high levels of both demand and supply for this sort of food, is mirrored in the fact that you can buy a choripán for 100 pesos on almost every street, while healthy options are much harder to find. “I definitely think that all of these over-processed foods are a real issue that we are seeing all over, and it is something we are trying to tackle both with the children of today, but also via our restaurants by simply talking to people about what good food really is.”
If you would like to learn more about the project or support the work of Delicias de Alicia, you can attend one of the upcoming dinners, hire their catering service for your next party ,or sign up as a volunteer! Follow @deliciasdealiciaba for more info.
Delicias de Alicia & Sheikob’s Bagels | Saturday, November 17th | Tickets