The recipe wasn’t complicated, a simple mushroom taco, yet it caught the attention of the farmworkers at South Mill Mushrooms in Kennett Square.
These workers, who spend their days picking the fungi, don’t typically eat them, either from a distaste for the food—real or perceived—or perhaps an uncertainty about how to prepare them. But as José Maciel and Antonio Renteria, winners of a 2019 Penn President’s Engagement Prize, started doing cooking demos of recipes like the tacos, they began to notice a shift.
“During these mock cooking sessions, within 20 minutes, we would transform the mushrooms and encourage those watching us to try them,” Renteria says. “The irony is that they see mushrooms every day, but [many] haven’t tasted them or learned how to cook with them.” Eating the food, it turns out, inspired the farmworkers to ask questions about how to prepare novel recipes or where to get additional ingredients easily.
Such a response is precisely what Maciel and Renteria had hoped for with Cultivando Juntos or “Cultivating Together,” their 13-week program aimed at improving the health and well-being of mushroom farmworkers. The project is still in early days, but since moving to the Kennett Square area this past July, the pair has done a food demonstration each week, conducted a focus group with 10 women and 10 men at South Mill, and expanded the Cultivando Juntos team to include Penn biostatistician Dina Appleby and postdoctoral fellow Laura Vargas.
Through their mentorship relationship with assistant professor Adriana Perez, they also formalized an opportunity for Penn undergraduates. In Perez’s Research/Inquiry-Based Service Residency, a required course in the Penn Nursing curriculum, three students will take on Cultivando Juntos as their project, helping Maciel and Renteria with data collection during sessions in which participants will sign consent forms, fill out questionnaires, and have basic health care data like blood pressure and weight taken. The actual program with South Mill participants is set to begin shortly.
“Our pilot will go from early November until mid-January. We’re planning to go through the holiday season,” Maciel explains. “Then we’ll try to repeat it at another farm, To-Jo Mushrooms, and record the sessions. We want to make this electronic and replicable, in an easy manner, so it can be led by any volunteer using our recorded videos.”
To this point in the short tenure of Cultivando Juntos, Maciel has mainly taken on the role of spokesperson, simultaneously getting to know the farmers and explaining the program. “My responsibility is sharing the message of health,” he says. “My favorite thing is talking to the farmers and connecting food to fuel and medicine, trying to deliver the message that vegetables can be transformed into something palatable, something they can look forward to.”
Renteria has played a more behind-the-scenes, directional role, ensuring that before each food demo, for example, the car is appropriately stocked and that everything is set up correctly once there. He also does a good deal of the cooking. “I might demonstrate how to cut a tomato, how to chop an onion,” he says. “I’ve developed some of the recipes.”
He also handles the money; the receipts in particular have played a role neither he nor Maciel expected. “I really like this part of my responsibility,” Renteria says. “I [keep track of] what we’ve been spending, but also, I use the receipts from Walmart to show the farmworkers how much things cost. We’ve been able to show them that [to prepare] this number of tacos only costs $7. They often ask, ‘Where do we get ingredients? Can I get this pan from Walmart?’ Overall this has really strengthened what we’re trying to accomplish.”
It’s all still a bit of a work in progress. Initially, the PEP winners thought their program would run for 18 weeks, with each session lasting for about an hour. But feedback from would-be participants made them reconsider: Now it will be 13 weeks total, with the first and last week used solely for data collection, and the 11 classes in between each running 30 to 45 minutes. Maciel and Renteria are still trying to determine whether it’s feasible for these to incorporate reflection time for the farmworkers, too.
“That’s the most challenging component to implement,” Maciel says. “It’s intimate, asking people what their struggles are, and how we can help. We’re only able to do that once we have their trust.” It’s something both plan to keep working on—aided, in no small part, by the warm community in which they have immersed themselves.
“Feeling that flow of being in a Latino space is great. There is something unique about being two enthusiastic, welcoming, smiling Latino men,” Maciel says. Beyond that, “there’s this family experience I’m getting out of this. Being a Latino and surrounding myself in this way, it’s really been like being with my tias and tios [aunts and uncles] back home.”
Six Penn seniors, including José Maciel and Antonio Renteria, were named recipients of the 2019 President’s Engagement Prize. Awarded annually, the prizes empower Penn students to design and undertake post-graduation projects that make a positive, lasting difference in the world. Each prize-winning project received $100,000, as well as a $50,000 per-student living stipend.
Dina Appleby is a biostatistician in the Clinical Research Computing Unit at the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the Perelman School of Medicine.