Zoraida Llasaca (right) smiles with her daughter Grace (left) in their living room on July 7, 2022. Photo by Bridget Fogarty.

This story is part of (DIS)Invested — a longterm Reader investigation into Omaha’s inequities.

It’s 11 o’clock on a sunny June morning in La Vista, Nebraska, and four young women are admiring more than three dozen leafy green vegetables poking out the dirt on the south side of Zoraida Llasaca’s home. Llasaca, a woman born in Peru who has called Nebraska home for the past 18 years, smiles beside the pots of growing herbs that line her backyard garden’s perimeter. Her hands shift from one plant to another as her elderly mother and 11-year-old daughter, Grace, help her check the garden’s progress.

Months ago, this corner of Llasaca’s yard was a patch of grass. Then team members from Siembra Salud, a free health education initiative of the Latino Center of the Midlands, worked with her to make the space into a garden for her family: digging up dirt, arranging a brick perimeter, planting the seeds. Now, the space is teeming with herbs and vegetables already ripe for picking that will provide the Llasaca family multiple harvests through the fall.

“Let’s get out of the heat,” Llasaca suggests in Spanish, and she leads her family and the Siembra Salud team from the backyard garden to her front steps and into her home.  

The Llasacas are one of 35 families currently enrolled in Siembra Salud, which translates to ‘grow health’ or ‘grow wellness.’ The program equips low-income Latino families with the tools to grow and maintain their own gardens and, as a result, have better access to affordable, nutritional foods. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food deserts in urban communities as low-income areas where the nearest grocery store is a mile away. The majority of Omaha’s food deserts are located in North and South Omaha, where neighborhoods are predominantly Latino and Black, according to the USDA Food Access Research Atlas. Graphic by Bridget Fogarty.

The program is filling a gap in Latino homes, which have higher rates of food insecurity across the U.S. In Omaha, predominantly Latino and Black neighborhoods are the same areas defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as food deserts — low-income communities where the nearest grocery store is more than a mile away. 

Hispanic Nebraskans (43.3%) were more than 6 times likely than white Nebraskans (7.0%) to report not having health care coverage, according to data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS). Graph by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

Access to healthy foods is one of the many social determinants of health — the ways the places we live, learn, work and play impact our health. Immigration policies and transportation also play a significant role, as does access to health care.

In Nebraska, where 12% of the population identifies as Latino, more than half of Latino residents report not having a personal physician. That’s more than triple the percentage of white residents, according to Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services. 

For many, seeing a doctor is a financial choice rather than a medical one. One in five Latinos in Nebraska report being unable to see a physician due to cost, and they are six times more likely than whites to lack health care coverage, according to DHHS

But programs like Siembra Salud can help close the gap by working from the ground up. Helping families grow fresh food is just the first step — Siembra Salud uses gardening as a catalyst to have regular conversations about health education that help reduce and prevent health disparities.

Llasaca invites the group inside to take a seat on two couches in the corner of her living room. Above them hang colorful paintings of flowers, a wolf’s silhouette against a glowing planet in space and a decorated violin. The artist, Llasaca’s daughter, Grace, sits on the ground nearby crafting a fish-shaped mosaic of plastic beads as the women get to talking. 

Yazmin Islas takes Zoraida Llasaca’s blood pressure during a health education visit on June 16, 2022. Photo by Bridget Fogarty.

“Have you had any experience with diabetes?” 22-year-old Milvian Lopez asks Llasaca in Spanish. Llasaca nods. “I know friends who suffer from diabetes,” Llasaca says in Spanish. “It’s insufficient sugar in the body.”

Lopez nods and continues to explain how Hispanic and Latino populations in the U.S. are at  higher risks of developing diabetes than white Americans. A couple minutes later, Yazmin Islas, a Siembra Salud intern, takes Llasaca’s blood pressure. Then, Flor Solano, another intern, shares ideas of how to get the whole family exercising for at least 30 minutes a day.

“When I was little, my mom would walk with us to the corner store and back every single day,” Solano tells Llasaca in Spanish. “I always looked forward to it.”

For almost an hour, the conversation flows from topics like eating healthy foods to prevent illness to getting up to date on vaccinations. The visit ends when the team gives Llasaca a packet of phone numbers and addresses for community health centers, meal programs and other resources in Omaha.

These biweekly visits feel more like conversations with family than a presentation of medical facts – and that’s intentional, according to Efrén García, the Siembra Salud coordinator.

“We don’t just check in on their gardens,” García said, “but we also check on how they’re doing in all aspects of health – how they’re doing emotionally, spiritually, socioeconomically, anything that they need help with.”

Siembra Salud interns are mostly high school or college-aged Latinos interested in careers in public health. When participants are greeted at their homes by staff who look like them and speak their language, García said, it opens doors to conversations they might not otherwise have with a health care provider who doesn’t speak Spanish.

“Trust is built every time we come,” said Diana Linares, the specialist for Siembra Salud. “I have several families who I sometimes have to take more time with because, sometimes they tell me, ‘Thank you, this was a therapy for me.’”

Community organizations like Siembra Salud and the Latino Center of the Midlands play a tremendous role in connecting health care resources and community members, said Athena Ramos, an associate professor in the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. That’s especially true in times of crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately impacted Latinos and exacerbated health inequities. 

A Siembra Salud intern’s role is similar to that of a community health worker: to be a trusted health liaison of the community they serve, Ramos said. 

“(Siembra Salud staff) have spent numerous hours with families teaching them about gardening, about healthy eating, about how to use the produce that they’re actually producing in their gardens,” said Ramos, who serves as an evaluator for the program. “They have the trust of the people that they serve, and they have an ability to educate people and provide resources in a way that’s culturally, linguistically and contextually appropriate.”

“Trust is built every time we come. I have several families who I sometimes have to take more time with … they tell me, ‘Thank you, this was a therapy for me.’”

Diana Linares, Siembra Salud Specialist

Program evaluation data show from 2019 to 2021, Siembra Salud conducted 774 home visits with 75 families and provided participants over 550 referrals to community agencies, such as food banks, immigration legal services, behavioral health services or English classes. Participants have reported better physical and mental health, improved dietary intake and increased physical activity following their involvement in the program.

Lopez, the lead intern on Llasaca’s home visit, has seen participants change the ways they cook, exercise or talk about their health after seemingly simple conversations with Siembra Salud team members in their gardens or living rooms throughout this summer. She came to Omaha from Guatemala in 2017, and she’s brought the health education lessons she teaches home to her family, too.

“You don’t have to get to the point of getting sick to get educated at the hospital — you can avoid all that with being educated at your home,” Lopez said.

Llasaca sees her bountiful garden as a labor of love her whole family has gotten to work on together. Grace has taken up gardening, too, and now cares for her own orchid and blueberry plants.

Llasaca believes team members from Siembra Salud, especially young Latinas, have shown her daughter the opportunities that are possible for her when she gets older.

“The motivation that they have, the desire they have to be here, it excites me to see the youth when they return to appreciate the plants,” Llasaca said in Spanish. “This is what enriches me; it encourages me.”

Zoraida Llasaca (left) stands with her daughter Grace, 11, (right) in front of their backyard garden built with the help of Siembra Salud team members on July 7, 2022. Photo by Bridget Fogarty.

Bridget Fogarty is a Report for America Corps member reporting with The Reader and its billingual (Spanish/English) sister publication El Perico.

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