Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Filipina American wins prestigious award for promoting healthy food

A FILIPINA/AMERICAN healthy food advocate was named the winner of the 2016 Thomas I. Yamashita Prize.

Aileen Suzara, 31, is a Bay Area-based natural chef who focuses on sustainable foods and who works to encourage healthier eating by teaching garden and farm-based workshops, developing sustainability educational programs, and hosting community pop-up dinners. 

Aileen Suzara
The Thomas I. Yamashita Prize is awarded annually to an outstanding young social change activist in California. The award of $2,500 honors a person whose work transforms the existing social landscape - often in subtle and previously unappreciated ways - and serves as a bridge between the academy and the community. 

She is an alumnus of UC Santa Cruz’s Farm and Garden Agroecology Apprenticeship program, and recently received her Master’s in Public Health Nutrition from UC Berkeley. 

Suzara's blog, Kitchen Kwento (Tagalog for "stories"), documents and shares stories on the relationship between food, people, and the land. Aileen is a first generation Filipino/American who grew up in California and Hawai’i. 

"I had a semi-nomadic childhood — born in eastern Washington, then moved on to Texas, Florida, and the Mojave Desert. We ate more canned minestrone soup, Spam and microwave dinners than “authentic” Filipino food in those days," she told Off The Menu: Asian America.

"When I was eight, I found the old Filipino cookbook my mom had brought [to the U.S.] in the ’60s that became both a passport and talisman to Filipino food. It was when we moved to Hawai’i that we were at last surrounded by a local culture defined by its relationships to food—a place flavored by many cultures, including Filipino cuisine and agricultural history.

In 2014-15 Aileen was a graduate student researcher at the Berkeley Food Institute and took a leadership role in their community engagement program, which aims to build bridges between UC Berkeley and the broader food and agriculture community.

As a public health nutritionist, she delves into health inequities faced by Filipino/Americans, including diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. Healthy Filipino food might sound like an oxymoron and some may call Suzara's recipes "inauthentic," she replies:

"Authenticity is a word that comes up often in questions about food. But it’s a slippery term, as culture is constantly changing. At the root, all traditional food cultures are largely 'healthy.' And Filipino cuisine, at its roots, reflects a complex relationship with land, sea and seasons. While this is a vastly abridged and simplified history, we are all caught in a story that the public health world identifies as the “nutrition transition”—a rise in chronic disease and a marked shift away from traditional diets and lifestyles. To cook something closer to precolonial, or using what’s available to us even in the States—how do we channel that authentically today?"

Collaborating with Filipino Advocates for Justice (FAJ), Aileen supported the launch of Bahay Kubo, a garden in Union City, California that builds upon FAJ's youth leadership model with hands-on experiences in growing and sharing healthy Filipino food. In 2015, the project placed first in the Big Ideas@Berkeley competition.

She is an advisory member to the Filipino American Coalition for Environmental Solidarity and an eco-culinary educator with Sama Sama Cooperative, which works to "reclaim language, culture, and land-based traditions." Another recent endeavor was launching a youth-run kitchen site for the Ceres Community Project.

She is hard at work on Sariwa (Fresh), a sustainable Filipino foods business that connects traditionally-inspired diets and entrepreneurship as a tool for change. Developed as a pop-up restaurant at Berkeley's Eat.Think.Design health innovations course, Sariwa is now a proud participant in the La Cocina women's food incubator. 

Suzara will be feted  by the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues on Oct. 31 on the UC Berkeley campus. For details, click here.