Connecting food and culture to better health

Connecting food and culture to better health

Aileen Suzara goes back to the land to raise the importance of sustainable farming and food traditions in our community

FOR us who grew up in cities, food—primarily fresh produce—is associated to restaurants, or if we actually dared to cook ourselves, a trip to your nearest grocery or supermarket.    We see growing our own food as too much work, and would rather leave it to actual farmers.

Commercial producers have “tinkered” with their produce via growth hormones, antibiotics and pesticides in the goal to raise productions.  Initially, it was thought that this process was to meet the demands to feed the world population. (According to the United Nations (UN), the human population of the world is expected to become 9 billion by 2042.  At present, it is a little above 7 billion).

However, some researchers and advocates say the issue isn’t the shortage of food – as there is an astounding amount of food wasted before it makes it to people’s homes.  The issue, they say, is more about poverty and access.

In 2003, the World Bank (WB) and the UN published a report about the role of genetically modified food (GMO) and genetic engineering (GE) in poverty alleviation.  The report said that although GMO crops were able to increase overall yield, does not solve food scarcity due to the limited number of GMO crop varieties that can be adapted to local conditions.  In fact, Greenpeace stated that that the lack of food is NOT the cause of hunger.  In other words, more food doesn’t necessarily mean fewer hungry people.

This is where sustainable farming can make a difference in today’s food production industry.   Through this system, local resources are used and it focuses on the health, ecology, fairness and care of the farming process.

Healing through food

For educator, eco-advocate and cook Aileen Suzara, her interest in farming started when she was a young girl.

“I was fascinated by plants and by cooking as a little girl, and when I was eight years old, I told my parents I wanted to be a farmer and a chef.  Of course, they wanted a doctor instead – farming and the hard work of the body was something they thought we had said goodbye to,” she said.

Although born in Washington, Aileen was raised in California and Hawai’i.  Growing up in the island, she witnessed how food, health and culture connected.  “So much food – pineapples, papayas, coffee – was grown to be shipped thousands of miles away, while imports like Spam flooded the stores,” she explained and added, “I became inspired by efforts to revitalize native food[s], not only to curb the epidemic of chronic diseases, but to strengthen their culture and heal the environment.  As I grew older, I began to explore how that kind of healing could look like for our Filipino-American community.”

To truly understand how it is to work the earth, Aileen had her first farm apprenticeship at Native/Seeds SEARCH Farm in Tucson, Arizona in 2006.  “…That love of farming stuck,” she said, and she later on did the CASFS Farm Garden apprenticeship in 2011, then she continued on to Pie Ranch in Pescadero, California, which was a teaching farm.

“It was powerful to learn, through muscle and sweat, the art and science of getting something from seed to harvest,” she said.  And although Aileen is currently finishing her Masters in Public Health in Nutrition in UC Berkeley, she admits that farms are still on her mind.

“Nutrition isn’t just about calories and micronutrients—it depends on farms and those who grow and harvest it, too.”

Going back to the land and the rise of sustainable farming

Sustainable agriculture, as defined by Congress, is “an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term:

(1) satisfy human food and fiber needs;

(2) enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends;

(3) make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls;

(4) sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and

(5) enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”

Aileen explained that many of us may not be sure what “sustainable” means or who it includes, but added that “sustainable farming” is not new.

“It was practiced and developed over generations,’ she said.  “As Filipino-Americans, we already have a legacy as land-based people, both in the Philippines and in the US.  Filipinos were essential in shaping farming and the farmworkers movement for justice,” referring to the labor organizer Larry Itliong and other Filipino farm workers who instigated the California’s Delano Grape Strike in 1965.

Today, she said, sustainable farming is important because of our current industrial food system that harms farmworkers, the environment, biodiversity and public health.

“We are also living in a time of climate change – from typhoons devastating smallholder farms across the Philippines to drought in California’s Central Valley,” she said and then added, “Given all the challenges, the rise of sustainable farming is important for all communities – it offers hope and practical solutions.”

A healthy Filipino food culture

A certified Natural Chef and about to finish her Masters in Public Health in Nutrition from UC Berkeley, Aileen has been working on uplifting the Filipino food culture apart from its notoriety as greasy and unhealthy.   Of course, Filipino food is often stereotyped that way through the menu we usually serve for special occasions such as lechon, pancit, lumpia, etc.

She, however, explained that in reality, nearly every food culture has something greasy and unhealthy.

“The rise of the fast food culture and the Standard American Diet (yes, SAD) is also wreaking havoc on health.  We don’t have to allow ourselves to be defined by those things,” she said.

Aileen also said that the diversity of Filipino food is what makes it economical, and even healthy.

“When I visited my family’s provinces (her mother is from Pangasinan, her father is from Bicol),  I remember one relative who cooked dishes with edible flowers, ferns, yam tops and just-caught fish—not because we were at a fancy farm-to-table restaurant, but because it was what was available and actually cheap,” she recalled.  “Meat was used more as a flavoring, not as an entire dish.”

Also, realizing that not all may have easy access to fresh produce, she encourages Fil-Ams to find ways to draw from food traditions to create something healthy and delicious.

“We have centuries of tradition based on eating locally, eating deliciousness, and even eating ‘organically,’ long before it became a buzzword.  This our time to reconnect to food in ways that build our physical, emotional, economic and community health.”

As for those who want to go into sustainable farming, Aileen suggests to tap all resources and most importantly, to get down on the dirt.

“…Get hands-on experience through an apprenticeship.  Learning from friends who farm, I’ve seen the ups and downs of the beautiful and often difficult work they do – from running the business end, to seeking land,” she said and added, “It’s not for everyone, but we certainly need more farmers, and it would tremendous to see Filipino-Americans and more farmers of color working the land on our own terms.  There are also many ways to get into food beyond farming – from how to vote, to growing and sharing food in your community.”

*Aileen has recently joined Hyphen Magazin as Co-Editor of Food and Agriculture.  Check out their site at  Also, she is hoping for a second round of a pop-up series called Sariwa (Fresh).  To know more about Aileen and other Fil-Ams doing work about and around food, visit her blog at

(SF February 13, 2015 SF Magazine pg.2)

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