Food Banks Challenged To Provide Latinos Familiar Foods


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“Ere lo que comes,” or “you are what you eat,” is an adage that Latinos who want to preserve their Caribbean or Latin American cultural heritage understand well.
Generally, gathering the ingredients for empanadillas, quinoa salad and other Hispanic favorites from supermarkets is becoming easier. Most chains now allocate more space for ethnic foods and display plantains and mangoes in their produce section.
Neighborhood markets in cities with significant Latino populations also are a major source of ethnic groceries.
However, for those Spanish-speaking families in Connecticut, particularly newer immigrants who still rely on emergency food programs, preparing familiar dishes is more challenging.
Typically, the food banks, even those in Latino areas, focus on distributing healthful foods rather than trying to accommodate the tastes of Connecticut’s growing array of immigrants – a daunting task.
Even when Spanish is a common language, these are diverse communities, said Yolanda Velez, lead medical manager for Latino Community Services in Hartford’s Wethersfield Avenue area. Latino Community Services operates one of the state’s approximately 1,000 local food banks and kitchens.
These aid programs rely heavily on surplus donations from local grocery stores and distributions from the regional food banks, Foodshare and Connecticut Food Bank.
“When we get a few pallets of plantains or mangoes or jicama, for instance,” Cherrington said, “we make sure those go to neighborhoods with a higher Latino population”
Also, when Foodshare can only supply fruits and vegetables that might be unfamiliar to some Latinos, Cherrington said, it provides recipe cards to help clients prepare these foods.
Cherrington notes that Foodshare  is aware of which pantries are in predominantly Latino neighborhoods. However, he said,  “Most partners have at least some Latino clients,” he said.
Local food banks generally know what supplies clients would like to receive. For example, Velez said that Latino Community Services gets requests for oatmeal, green beans, eggs and meat.
The largesse of  major wholesalers and retailers is vital for Connecticut anti-hunger programs. But what is unloaded at the warehouses can vary from week to week and tends mostly to be nonperishable items in boxes and cans. Latino-oriented brands may be in the mix but there is no certainty.
The national food bank network, Feeding America, recently reported that the average percentage of Latino clients is 20 percent. Cherrington projects that this may be close to the average in Foodshare’s area
In Bristol, the Community Fellowship Center distributes groceries weekly and serves weekend meals to about 200 families.
Many clients are Hispanic, said Pastor Dean Desjardins, who added that the center also holds weekly religious services in Spanish.
CFC gets the bulk of its food from Foodshare and welcomes donations of produce and even pastries from local grocers.  Individual contributions and food drives also help, Desjardins said.
For Foodshare, which also gets produce wholesale at its Hartford Regional Market site, monetary donations are the better way to help. “If people spend $30 for a food drive, they may get a bag full of groceries,” Cherrington said. “But if they give the $30 to us we can feed someone for a month.”
Looking to the future, with  Latino population growth outpacing the general population, there may come a day soon when frijoles negro and plantain chips will be as  “American” as frankfurters and pizza. These changing tastes may make it easier for food banks to obtain food more familiar to their Latino clients.
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