Canasta Básica: A Celebration of Hispanic Heritage

As the pandemic continues to keep us close to home and avoiding crowds, we must not forget National Hispanic Heritage Month which runs from September 15 to October. 15. This is a time to celebrate Hispanic culture and recognize the many achievements and contributions of  Hispanic Americans.

However, this is a year like no other. Many of our Hispanic neighbors have been severely impacted by Covid. They are disproportionately contracting the disease and dying. Recent SCDHEC data indicates that Hispanics, who make up 6% of the population in South Carolina, represent 10% of the state’s Covid cases.

Hispanics are often on the front lines and putting themselves at risk to keep their jobs. According to the Pew Research Center in April, 49% of Hispanics say they or someone in their household has taken a pay cut, lost a job or both – Hispanics are one of the groups hardest hit by Covid.

Another way Covid is deeply impacting the Hispanic community is by throwing families into a cycle of food insecurity. Many are now relying on food banks. Tragically during this time of year when we celebrate Hispanic culture, by enjoying such dishes as ceviche de camarones, baleadas and huevos rancheros, many of our Hispanic neighbors do not have food to put on their own tables.

The Hispanic Alliance, a Greenville-based nonprofit organization, saw the harsh reality of food insecurity and believed there was a way to mobilize the local Hispanic community to support each other. By working collaboratively, they brought together a variety of businesses and  community  resources to support families in need. Canasta Básica was created at the end of April…exemplifying a true celebration of Hispanic Heritage.

Canasta Básica, which literally means basic basket, began with the support of local Hispanic Supermercados, which agreed to supply staple food items at cost to the Hispanic Alliance.  These businesses are often the cultural centers of Hispanic neighborhoods. As a trusted place it made sense for them to also serve as canasta distribution sites.

The Build Trust Build Health Coalition secured additional food donations, such as fresh produce provided by Harvest Hope. PASOs located funds for the $15 gift certificates provided to each family. They also volunteer on the ground.

What is contained in each canasta and how it distributed is very intentional and goes to the heart of Hispanic culture. Distributed food is culturally appropriate offering recipients a sense of familiarity and security. And gift certificates are key to the program since they allow individuals to select their most cherished ingredients appropriate to their culture and style of cooking. The selection process offers recipients a sense of dignity.

The program operates from one location each week and is staffed by dedicated volunteers and the Hispanic Alliance staff.  “We are so proud that many of our current Student DREAMers Alliance (SDA) participants and program Alumni have chosen to continue civic engagement opportunities during Covid. Canasta Básica has been a perfect way for them to give back while learning how to broker relationships and coordinate a complex relief effort,” shared Adela Mendoza, executive director of the Hispanic Alliance.

Jose Daniel Rodriguez was a member of SDA Class I, and is now a rising Junior at Clemson University, majoring in Spanish and health sciences, with a clear trajectory toward medical school. He has volunteered several times at Canasta Básica. “While seemingly simple, this program is having a huge impact on Hispanic families in our community. It provides them with staples and fresh fruits and vegetables along with gift certificates to get other items. The program’s focus on healthy eating is key to reducing diabetes, high cholesterol and other diseases,” explained Jose Daniel.

“On my first day of volunteering I vividly remember meeting one of the men who received a basket and a gift certificate because he was so happy! When he came out of the grocery store, he proudly showed me all of the food that he was able to pick out and take home,” reflected Jose Daniel. “It is important that this man, and other recipients, are familiar with the food they receive and know how to cook it. The baskets are actually filled with the same ingredients my mom uses at home.”

To date Canasta Básica has distributed more than 581 canastas and 416 gift certificates to nearly 500 families. Thanks to the generous support of the One SC Fund and the McNulty Foundation, Hispanic Alliance will be able to continue this program into the fall and offer this opportunity for partnership to even more local businesses. They expect to invest over $50,000 in assistance.

Beyond the nutritional value of the program, Canasta Básica is an opportunity to get timely and accurate information in Spanish into the hands of families. More than 1,300  people have received Covid resources and census information. In addition, volunteers have been able to help parents apply for free internet so their children can learn from home.

This month in celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month please consider donating to the Hispanic Alliance to support the work they do lift up the Hispanic community throughout the year. For more information about the Hispanic Alliance visit (English and Spanish versions) or call 864-250-8968.  In addition, their Hotline 864-256-0760 is always answered by fully bilingual speakers to expedite access to assistance and referrals.

Debbie Nelson

Debbie Nelson is the president and founder of DNA Creative Communications, a woman-owned public relations and inspirational marketing firm for nonprofit organizations. Under Debbie’s leadership, in 2010 DNA founded Shine the Light Nonprofit Forums, an annual training program for Greenville nonprofits in partnership with the Community Foundation of Greenville County, the United Way of Greenville County, the Hollingsworth Funds, the Jolley Foundation and The Graham Foundation. To support other nonprofits across the state, she also manages professional development for Together SC. As an advocate for the nonprofit community, regularly Debbie shares nonprofit stories in her Shine the Light columns in the Greenville Business Magazine. Debbie is a graduate of Leadership Greenville, Leadership South Carolina and the Riley Institute’s Diversity Leadership Initiative. She has served on the boards of the Greenville Area Development Corporation, the South Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities, the United Way of Greenville County and the United Way Association of South Carolina.

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