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June 11th, 2014
Making a healthier Pilsen

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Latina_VoicesBy Crystal Ramirez, Latina Voices

It’s not a sight one would expect to see.  Mexican immigrants and college hipsters walking down the aisles together.  Some reach for bags of El Milagro tortilla chips and a cold Jarrito beverage. Others come for the soy chorizo and homemade apple water. It’s a place in Pilsen where two worlds collide and one Latina is trying to make a difference.

Through healthier food options and nutritional education, entrepreneur Sonia Yanez wants to change Pilsen’s eating habits with MeztiSoy Café, located at 1738 W. 18th St.

Yanez was born and raised in Pilsen, where over half of the children are overweight or obese. According to a 2010 community nutrition and physical activity survey, only 29 percent of adults know the recommended number of servings of fruits and vegetables they should eat everyday.

She was taught at an early age from her parents that eating healthy, exercising and growing fresh food was the key to living a healthy lifestyle.

Yanez recalled the many stories her father would tell her of when he first emigrated from Mexico to the U.S. He worked as a farmer of watermelons, peaches, tomatoes and more in California. Yanez, along with her siblings, grew up planting and learning about different fruits and vegetables through their father’s backyard garden in Pilsen. From her mother and grandmother’s home remedies, which ranged from different chamomile recipes to healing agents with olive oil, she learned to use all-natural alternatives instead of over-the-counter products.

Yanez took all her knowledge of healthy eating, and she combined it with her need to help the community make better food choices. It produced the framework of what would later result in as MeztiSoy.

In 2006, Yanez opened Soy Organic Market, one of the only organic food stores in Pilsen at the time, Little did she know her dream of helping her community become healthy would soon come to an end. Just three years later, as the recession was winding down, she had to close due to financial reasons. Yanez knew her dream wasn’t over, but she just didn’t know when it would begin again.

In 2013, she made it happen. Yanez, along with her husband and two sisters, opened MeztiSoy with the same goal in mind. She wanted to once again help Pilsen make healthier food choices one bite at a time. Now with the full support of her family and clear mindset, Yanez has set out to create a change.

Through the support of local farmers and vendors, and her plans to add a rooftop garden and bee colony hive, Yanez said she won’t just stop at educating the community through various food demonstrations and healthy-eating cooking classes. She is also trying to really get to know her customers, their families and their lifestyle habits. She believes this type of close interaction with the community within her store will help make her business successful. This is something she said she didn’t have the first time around.

MeztiSoy Café offers a 50-50 chance of eating something healthy. She doesn’t want to surprise her customers by giving them organic-only food options, so she does it in moderation. Yanez lines the shelves with hot Cheetos and Coke, but right next to them is the healthier option. Organic eggs, pure sugar cane, Annie’s organic mac and cheese, varieties of soy milk and the fresh organic Amish produce are just some of the items customers can chose from.

“It’s a way of introducing new products when you put one product next to another one,” said Yanez. “It builds curiosity. It builds questions, and it just says ‘hey, this is what’s available too.’ It’s an option, and I think we all should have options to what we want to buy.”

Saul Maravilla, the head chef at MeztiSoy, said his background as a culinary school graduate and former educator for the Department of Public Health helps him to provide healthy alternatives to the traditional Mexican dishes the customers are looking for. He uses his knowledge to keep employees and customers up-to-date, while providing a tasty substitute.

“The vision here is to utilize the organic and regular products at the store to create good meals for people,” Maravilla said. “Whether it be with a more vegetarian or vegan focus, or whether it be traditional Hispanic cuisine.”

Beti Guevara is all for alternative food options since she is a vegetarian. She often doesn’t have many food options in her Humboldt Park neighborhood. When she comes to MeztiSoy, she said she feels like her choices are limitless. Guevara said Latino communities are becoming a food desert, and if people don’t educate themselves on the food they are eating, they are bound to face many health issues.

“There needs to be more healthy choices within our community because people of color are the highest when it comes down to diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity,” said Guevara.

The most recent statistics from the National Diabetes Fact Sheet show that Hispanics are number two ethnically when it comes down to being diagnosed with diabetes, only 8 percent behind blacks. Among Hispanics, Mexicans made up a near majority of those being diagnosed with diabetes.

The local sector of the American Diabetes Association has a program called “Por Tu Familia,“ or “For Your Family,” which tries to educate Chicago Latinos on diabetes awareness.

The manager of “Por Tu Familia,” Alexandra Santana, said the program has done training and education awareness of diabetes in Pilsen in the past. She said through this type of community outreach, Latinos are not only getting to know the facts of the disease, but they are also learning how to prevent it.

“Exercise, portion control and consulting a doctor are the top three things the program pushes,” Santana said.

Raul Cruz, a butcher and specialty chef at MeztiSoy, said he knows much of the traditional Mexican food he grew up eating back home leads to this disease. He said he tries to make his food with the same traditional flavors, but with fresher, healthier ingredients. He said he starts with the meat, which is usually slaughtered a day or two before it goes on sale, and he finishes with the same “love” his mother put into his meals. Cruz added his barbacoa is to die for. He said it’s currently the number one traditional cooked product at MeztiSoy, with the unconventional soy tacos following behind it.

Lidia Hernandez and her sister are trying both. They stopped in for the first time after their trip to the nearby National Museum of Mexican Art. Hernandez said she once came to the supermercado that MeztiSoy replaced when she used to live in Pilsen. She said she was curious to see the changes the neighborhood has undergone. She said she is impressed to see the affordable prices of the organic products, but is even more impressed that MeztiSoy is able to keep up with neighborhood’s changing community while still keeping Pilsen’s “feel.”

“We don’t want a Wicker Park,” Hernandez said. “We want to still see this neighborhood have a Mexican heritage type of feel to it,” said Hernandez.

For now, Yanez said she plans on bringing more imported products from Mexico. One of her main goals remains to eliminate sugary soft drinks, like Coca-Cola, which once brought in a good amount of revenue to her old business. She said once she doesn’t have to financially rely on sales from sugary drinks and snacks, she will be one step closer in reaching her goal to change Pilsen’s eating habits one bite at a time.

This article was originally published in Latino Voices.

Crystal Ramirez recently graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a Master’s degree in Journalism. Twitter: @crystalclrnews.

[Photo courtesy of Google Maps]

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