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‘The Kitchenistas,’ produced by La Jolla resident, will get screen time at San Diego Latino Film Festival

In the documentary film "The Kitchenistas," a participant in the "Cooking for Salud" program learns to work with mushrooms.
(Courtesy of Mary Ann Beyster)

At its core, the feature documentary “The Kitchenistas” is about culture, sisterhood and embracing food as medicine. The film, produced by La Jolla resident Mary Ann Beyster and directed by David Romero, will be screened twice as part of the San Diego Latino Film Festival, which runs March 10-20.

“The Kitchenistas” will be shown at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 17, and 11:45 a.m. Saturday, March 19, both at the AMC Mission Valley cinema.

Screenings also are planned at San Diego libraries in coming months.

“The Kitchenistas” brings viewers into the lives of Latina immigrants advocating healthy food traditions by way of the “Cooking for Salud” program, an eight-week course at Olivewood Gardens & Learning Center in National City.

Cooking for Salud is a bilingual English and Spanish nutrition education and behavior modification program designed to teach participants how to make changes at home to help improve their families’ short- and long-term health. Those who complete the program are known as Kitchenistas.

A shorter version of the film was released in 2015 and was aired on PBS stations across the country, at festivals and for health organizations.

But when production wrapped, Beyster felt there was more to the story.

“There was just more to tell,” she said. “I really sought to provide real stories from people that have been on this journey of food as medicine. What the Kitchenistas are doing individually and as a group brings a lot of inspiration to others regionally. The focus is on the role of culture and tradition in making food choices.

“I was also impressed with how these women are community builders. They started with a nutrition program and became advocates and mentors. What you see through the film is how food brings them together and the sisterhood and the community resilience it builds. I was interested in creating this film to create a dialogue in families and the health care field about that.”

Cooking for Salud coordinator Patty Corona, one of the first Kitchenistas, said the goal of the program is to give participants “tools to include more fruits and vegetables in their food and be more confident to make healthier meals at home. We teach them that the quality of ingredients matter, and empower them to be leaders in the community and share what they learned with those they love.”

Beyond that, the program provides a place for participants — mostly women — to share other stories, skills and experiences.

Beyster said it was crucial to tell the story using the words of the Kitchenistas (and Kitchenistas in training).

“It’s about their stories of making small changes, said through these Latina women’s words,” Beyster said. “We’re trying to show, through this story, the empowerment of women and the courage it takes to make a change. If you decide to do that, you won’t be alone, so more people can know from watching this film that they, too, can make those changes. There are so many on the cusp of making that change, but need the encouragement.”

La Jolla resident Mary Ann Beyster produced "The Kitchenistas."
La Jolla resident Mary Ann Beyster produced “The Kitchenistas.”
(Courtesy of Mary Ann Beyster)

Though Beyster has a background in engineering, she has been making documentary films for 10 years, producing three and directing one. She was born and raised in La Jolla and returned 20 years ago. She said she considers her documentary filmmaking an extension of her past work in the fields of environmental sustainability and community health-building.

“We’re trying to show, through this story, the empowerment of women and the courage it takes to make a change.”

— Mary Ann Beyster

Dr. Sabrina Falquier Montgrain, an internal medicine and culinary medicine physician, is considered an “honorary Kitchenista” for her volunteerism. She speaks to the classes about the importance of food as medicine.

Falquier Montgrain was interviewed for the film, which she said is about “empowering people, including Latina women, to find themselves. Food and nutrition are the cornerstones, but it is about learning about oneself. I came in as a physician wanting to bring this aspect of teaching to the program … and I found where my road was meant to go. I am a different woman having been part of this.”

“There is a sterile feeling from the words ‘healthy’ and ‘health food,’” she said. “But the culinary medicine field is about the ‘why.’ What happens to my body when I eat sweets for breakfast instead of a balanced meal? Once I know these reasons and the benefit of putting good things in my body, that answers the why, and the Kitchenistas show them the how.”

Beyster said people who have seen the film said they want to reconnect to their roots in a more health-conscious way.

“They were touched by the connection through family, and one person said they wanted to go back through family recipes and transfer them as a gift to their granddaughter,” Beyster said. “We have all these traditions around food, so people can seek them out and appreciate them across generations.”

Learn more about the San Diego Latino Film Festival at sdlatinofilm.com or (619) 230-1938. ◆