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Slow Food Leaders: Elsi Rose

by Anna Hirschorn, Slow Food USA

Elsi Rose now knows how to prepare banana green or fried, how to cure a fever using Caribbean lemongrass tea, and how to eat loofah when it’s young the way they do in Taiwan. These are just a few of the cultural and culinary lessons from the Miramar Community Garden

Small Garden, Big Impact

When the Miramar County, Florida government, where Elsi works, decided to create a community garden 10 years ago, they broke new ground — literally and figuratively. Urban agriculture was a new idea and the government embarked on a series of partnerships to understand how to make urban growing relevant to their community. One of their early champions was Scott Lewis — now president of the Slow Food Glades to Coast chapter — who first brought Slow Food into the garden leadership meetings. Slow Food provided a framework for the garden committee: as they dived into the missions and visions of Slow Food, they found that Slow Food ideals closely mirrored their own. Utilizing Slow Food resources, the Community Garden launched.

Now a loyal member of Slow Food, Elsi is an Urban Planner in the Community Development Department, in charge of overseeing the Community Garden. Although small, the garden set off a chain of large changes in county policy, revolutionizing the way city code interacted with agriculture. In the process of creating the garden, Elsi and her colleagues tripped on legislative stumbling blocks and jumped through judicial hoops. The land development code and zoning laws, created by the urban planning department itself, were not conducive to building a community garden. In Miramar County, all land zoned ‘agriculture’ was, in actuality, a placeholder for future development; there were no more farms in the traditional sense. Since urban agriculture was a new concept, it wasn’t included in agricultural zoning code. Elsi realized that they’d unintentionally pushed farmers away. “The garden is small,” says Elsi, “but it shed a big light on city ordinances and what our residents and neighboring communities wanted and needed.” Through conversations with locals growers and Slow Food, the county added language to the city code allowing citizens to grow and sell food produced on their own property.

“[The Slow Food motto] good, clean and fair is so simple and to the point, but with such a huge impact. It’s so important at all levels: both shallow and deep, locally, internationally and intergenerationally.”

Cultural and Culinary Lessons

The garden is now a flourishing community center where young and old alike come to learn about the diverse cultures of Miramar. From chef battles at Disco Soup events to blue corn preparation demos at a Three Sisters (squash, corn and beans) party, Elsi loves when members showcase foods from their home countries. Not only do they “open eyes and raise awareness of how to save seeds and reduce food waste, but how to appreciate other cultures and foods.”

Elsi even credits Slow Food with teaching her about her own culture. According to her, the food that most symbolizes her home country of El Salvador is the pupusa. She recounts buying masa from el molino (the mill) to make pupusas, yet she had no understanding of the masa process until she stumbled across a pupusa recipe in a Slow Food children’s book. One word in particular she’d never seen before: nixtamal — partially cooked corn, enriched with calcium hydroxide, a precursor to masa.

“How could I possibly not know this? This is my culture,” Elsi asked herself. When she travelled to Denver for Slow Food Nations, she was shocked to see the author of the pupusa recipe doing a demo; kids were grinding corn, seeing how the masa was produced, then cooking it and eating it. She says, “I realized how important it is to understand the full process behind food production. We’ve lost everything; nowadays you only see a small part of the process. You don’t learn how to make a bagel from scratch.” The Community Garden now uses that recipe book and other Slow Food resources to provide classes for kids, teaching them how to follow various methods of cooking and understand where food comes from, who prepares it and who harvests it. 

Elsi hopes to keep working with Slow Food to raise awareness of community and physical health in a fun and profound way. “[The Slow Food motto] good, clean and fair is so simple and to the point, but with such a huge impact. It’s so important at all levels: both shallow and deep, locally, internationally and intergenerationally,” says Elsi, “But there’s still a lot of work to be done. Many people don’t think, ‘Where does this come from? Will it make me sick in 20 years and I don’t even know?’” Elsi remembers rewarding her children with “Happy Meals” when she was a young mom; she didn’t yet know the impact of these choices on her city and on her kids.

Elsi encourages others to look at Slow Food, to pick and choose what can be applied to the needs of their community and adding their own “flavor” to it, much the way her residents use the fruits of the community garden. Nothing makes her smile more than walking into the garden to a chorus of, “my grandma used to make that!”