Mary Ella Steck and Centro Latino
Mary Ella Steck, a Spanish court interpreter and a Vegetarian Resource Group Life Member, has been passionately promoting a vegan diet in Colombia, Missouri, in an attempt to prevent obesity. She decided to volunteer at Centro Latino, which aims to bring health, educational, and cultural benefits to the local Hispanic community through its free and open services, as a way to truly make a difference in Missouri, where 31 percent of Hispanic adults are obese.
"Dietary changes are what I feel brings people the most benefit—health benefits, environmental benefits, and spiritually a more elevating lifestyle," she said.
Steck has been a vegetarian since 1994 and later transitioned smoothly to a vegan lifestyle. Now, the programs at Centro Latino allow her to promote the nutrition aspect of health, particularly the benefits of a plant-based diet, within her community.
For example, Steck coordinated the center's Fresh Start Program, which challenged willing participants to eat a plantbased diet for a month. Steck was inspired to begin this program from her own experiences. She once committed herself to eating raw for an entire month and found that so many benefits can arise once someone sets aside something in a very dedicated way. Additionally, Steck was inspired by the work of Dr. Baxter Montgomery, a cardiologist in Houston, Texas, who uses nutritional therapy with his patients and has held a month-long 'Boot Camp' to teach them about a natural, holistic way to better their health.
Centro Latino's own Fresh Start Program attracted about 20 people. The participants often attended the program's cooking demonstrations on how to prepare plant-based foods. "People are so used to opening boxes, opening cans, and going through a drive-thru rather than handling fresh lettuce," Steck said. Many participants reported weight loss and a better overall feeling after the 30-day program, and many continue to implement the healthier diet choices learned from the program into their daily lives.
Steck also got involved with the children at Centro Latino. After a Mexican friend taught her how to make tamales, she adapted the recipe into a vegan version and made tamales with the children of Hispanic immigrants who come to Centro Latino for tutoring with university student volunteers. (For Steck's tamale recipe, visit www.vrg.org/recipes/.) Some of the ingredients for the tamales came from the Cesar Chavez Garden that Centro Latino maintains to help promote a fresh, healthy lifestyle in the community.
Likewise, Steck was involved with Veggie Friendly Kids in the Kitchen, Centro Latino's childhood obesity prevention intervention. This program introduced Hispanic children to a vast array of vegetarian products and encouraged them to help in preparing meals. Fresh produce, salads, fruit cups, Smart Dog veggie hot dogs, veggie tacos, and healthy pasta were just some of the offerings, as was an all-important exercise component.
Centro Latino's next plan involves building the Comedor Popular, or the People's Diner, a place where the center can educate the community further about cooking with fresh ingredients. Although more funding is still needed, a local architectural company has donated its services, and other nearby companies have generously donated their time. One day, Steck hopes to be able to cook there and bring cultures together.
As far as the future is concerned, Steck is looking forward to a lot of dietary changes in the community. "People are really ready for the benefits of a plant-based diet," Steck said.