Fast food restaurants are found in just about every nook and cranny of urban and rural America today. Whether driving through the vast open highways of the southwest or walking the streets of New York, we can be assured that with over 160,000 fast food restaurants spread across the nation, there’s going to be one right around the corner promising tantalizing treats. Whatever else it might be, fast food is quick, easy, and convenient, and millions of people across the globe make the choice to buy it every day.
One thing for certain is that today’s burgers, fries and sodas, packed as they are with high-fructose corn syrup and sodium, are a far cry from the foods any of our ancestors used to consume. Many of us are not familiar with those foods our ancestors ate or what their tables looked like when they sat down to break bread together. Our diets have changed drastically over the centuries, and the culture of fast food that has become the norm is having dire consequences for our health.
Rubi Orozco, Public Health Specialist at La Mujer Obrera, a nonprofit in El Paso, Texas that promotes women’s empowerment and economic and community development, is working to combat the staggering rates of diabetes and obesity in her community, located along the U.S.-Mexico border. She explains that “A lot of research shows that as immigrants from any place, but specifically Latino immigrants, that the longer we are here and begin to acculturate, we start to lose certain healthful practices.” With many people working two jobs, it is often difficult to make time to cook fresh foods, and it is easy to begin relying on fast, heavily processed foods instead. Orozco says, “We don’t question these changes, because they save us time right now, but in the future we are really taking time off of our lives.”
Orozco’s solution? Look to the healthy practices of her ancestors.
“When people think about eating healthy, they often think about having to eat things that are very foreign to the way they eat now, like wheat grass or soy. In reality, we just have to look back a couple of generations, to go back to what our grandparents were doing,” Orozco explains. “The food is still familiar enough, and is in our genes, so we don’t have to try something entirely new.”
Through classes and workshops offered at Mercado Mayapán, a Mexican artisan and food market at La Mujer Obrera, Orozco is working to bring this knowledge back. Drawing from the cultural history of the Mesoamerican diet, she explores the healthful qualities of ancestral foods to highlight, celebrate, and return to what is inherently good in this diet.
For example, dairy was not a part of the Mesoamerican diet, and many people from this region are lactose intolerant, Orozco says. “We haven’t developed the ability to digest it throughout the generations yet, much like how people from Europe often have trouble digesting beans, while we can eat them three times a day.” Instead, there were other forms of protein and calcium that were commonly consumed, including amaranth and chia, a member of the mint family once widely cultivated for its nutritious seeds. “Five hundred years ago,” Orozco says, “these foods shared the same importance as corn and beans on the table. Yet today, many people haven’t heard of them.”
Both amaranth and chia were primary ingredients of the warrior diet during the Spanish conquest of the Mesoamerican people, and as such these foods were made illegal by colonial rulers, Orozco explains. If a native farmer was caught cultivating amaranth, the penalty was having a hand cut off, or even death. Naturally, the use of these seeds became less prevalent as a result, and 400 years later most people do not even know what they are, let alone how they can be used or cultivated.
Amaranth is a very small seed, honey-brown in color and rich in protein and calcium. It can be ground into a fine flour for making breads and atoles (traditional Mexican and Central American hot drink) or popped and sprinkled on yogurt or fruit. Chia is packed full of the omega-three fatty acids commonly found in fish. Sprinkled on fruit or added to drinks, this small black seed has a complete protein that is hard to find in other vegetables and makes for a healthy addition to vegetarian diets.
Many of the nutrition workshops at Mercado Mayapán are designed so that participants have an experience with traditional foods, rather than just receiving information about them. Orozco uses a historical approach to improve health and introduce people to cultural foods by relating it to their history. “When you tie it [nutrition education] to something that is in our history, people connect with it at a deeper level. They want to try things more, are more curious about tasting it, and it builds a connection that goes beyond simply saying ‘this is a good source of protein.’”
Orozco is fighting back against the stigma surrounding Mexican food—namely, that it is greasy, fried, and full of lard and cheese. In fact, many Tex-Mex and Mexican food restaurants in this region offer foods that are just that. However, Orozco’s approach is meant for people to see that the traditional food of Mexico is much more wholesome and diverse than its modern reputation would suggest.
“We need to re-define what Mexican food is,” Orozco asserts. To this end, she is working to reintroduce traditional foods, including nopalito (prickly pear cactus pads) salad with chili, onions and fresh cheese, popcorn, beets, carrots, squash and black beans, jicama (a sweet root vegetable), and tuna (prickly pear fruit) with chili and lime. “[Before the conquest] we didn’t have dairy, we didn’t fry things, we didn’t use lard, and we didn’t eat big animals,” she explains, “and connecting people with this history creates a sense of pride…a reaffirming that it’s okay to eat the food of our culture, that traditionally it was none of these things.”
The growth of fast food restaurants across the globe is another conquest of its own kind. Yet grassroots food activists and organizations like La Mujer Obrera are offering a different option for consumers. At Mercado Mayapán, shoppers can find amaranth, chia, and various dried herbs and spices, among other ancestral foods. The restaurant there also offers traditional Mexican dishes, including grilled cactus stuffed with mushrooms and chipotle chili, along with other types of wholesome foods not commonly found in Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurants today.
Rubi Orozco and others who share her vision are working to shift the eating habits of future generations away from a Taco Bell culture and toward nourishing ancestral foods like chia. Maybe soon it will not be so strange to hear someone say, “Please pass the amaranth!”