Salsa contender Esther Stenger was excited to tell onlookers about her healthy recipe, a mixture she learned years ago in Hermosillo, Mexico. As visitors scooped up her multi-colored medley at last weekend’s competition, she instructed them on its preparation.
Stenger was one of nine contestants in the salsa competition, part of Bakersfield’s Greenfield community’s annual health and safety fair. The salsa competition provides a fun way to promote eating fresh and healthy at home, an important message for a community that struggles with high health disparities.
“Look, there are six different types of peppers and fresh cauliflower,” she said, pointing to the yellows, greens and reds. “This salsa is so healthy, and it’s delicious with carne asada, or burritos.”
“Everyone loves salsa and it’s a good way to get your veggies in,” said Nora Ortiz, the nutrition project coordinator at the Greenfield Family Resource Center. “As people come in here to taste the salsa, we can give them information on healthy eating.”
Salsa was the best choice for the competition since it’s so popular in California and can be made with fruits and vegetables, she said. The contestants are encouraged to use healthy ingredients and provide the recipes so participants can replicate the salsas at home, added Daisy Jimenez, who also works for the resource center.
For contestant Stenger, educating the local community about healthy choices is an important mission. The percentage of diabetes in the Latino communities is too high, and the cuisine doesn’t include enough vegetables, she said. Even if home cooks simply top traditional dishes with a healthy vegetable-loaded salsa, it can make a difference.
In California, nearly one in five Latino adults over age 50 reports having diabetes, according to a UCLA report. That is nearly twice the rate for whites, and among the highest for all groups, the publication said.
The statistics for eating healthy are grim as well. Just 38 percent of Latino adults in California eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, with more than one-third eating two or less servings a day, according to the California Department of Health Services.
Those figures resonate with Stenger on a personal level. Her mother died of complications from obesity when she was 42 – the exact age Stenger is today. She said she’s making an effort to change her own diet, replacing lard-laden tortillas with whole grain breads and cutting down on bad oils.
“If you make healthy side dishes like this, you’ll eat less of more fattening foods like chicharrónes,” she said. “Seeing all these colors is a feast for your eyes, too.”
Onlookers tend to agree. Nelia Ramos-Diaz, who sampled Stenger’s salsa, says the more nutrients in the condiment, the better. She said she also enjoyed a salsa made with nopales, which come from the prickly pear cactus. Her grandson Elliott, 6, says he prefers the ones that go easy on the chili peppers.
“I don’t like the spicy ones,” he said.
Along with promoting healthier eating, the salsa competition is also about community involvement, said Barbara Gutierrez, the contender who uses the nopales in her batch. For residents of Bakersfield’s rougher south side, it’s nice to see people out and enjoying themselves, she said: “It’s good to see people not being scared to get out in this area, and getting involved with the community.”
Alex Yanez, 14, agrees. Even more than the salsa sampling itself, he likes the community aspect of the fair. It’s fun to see how the different types of salsa reflect the various cultures that make up the area, he said.
While some competitors have long-established family recipes, Carl Fite is a newcomer to salsa making. His version dubbed “The Soul Express” is a simple medley of tomatoes, onions, cilantro and jalapeno.
Next to him is one of the youngest participants, Isabel Zuniga, 15. Zuniga prepared one recipe on site, but wasn’t happy with the result. She sent her cousin out to the store to get new ingredients for her second batch, a pico de gallo-like chunky version.
Zuniga said she loves to cook at home, and will work with her mom to prepare the family’s dishes for the week. In recent months, her family has altered their lifestyle, cutting out soda and only eating out once a week.
“We’re all trying to eat healthier,” she said.
For the competition’s winners – the father/daughter team of Martin and Karyn Soloranzo – two items made all the difference in an otherwise simple blend of tomatoes, cilantro and onions.
Since the premise of the competition is to spread healthy recipes, Martin Soloranzo said he didn’t mind disclosing the key to his team’s success: “The secret ingredients were the lemon and lime.”