The Nurses for Tomorrow
José Maciel and Antonio Renteria co-founded Cultivando Juntos, a program aimed toward helping Latino farm workers improve their health habits.
Health can be heavily influenced by time, knowledge and accessibility among various other factors. José Maciel and Antonio Renteria experienced these factors firsthand. Those experiences led them to create the non-profit Cultivando Juntos, (“Cultivating Together” in English) in 2019. Cultivando Juntos is a community-based program aimed at improving the health and well-being of Latino farmers at their workspace.
“We wanted to use our nursing expertise to arm farmworkers with healthy foods and supportive knowledge on a week-by-week basis to develop healthy habits,” said Maciel.
Graduates of University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, Maciel and Renteria pursued the field of community nursing largely as a result of their parents’ upbringing. Growing up in central Washington, Maciel’s parents worked in a number of orchards, villages and agricultural warehouses, while Renteria’s father worked in maintenance and in the carrot industry in Uvalde, Texas.
“I saw how tough it was to live such a labor-intensive life, and also manage one’s health,” said Maciel. “At the same time, when I was in high school, my mother was diagnosed with Lymphoma. There was one nurse on the floor who spoke Spanish, and when she visited my mother, I saw how much it lifted her spirits. I wanted to be the same resource for patients like my mother in the future, so I decided to become a nurse.”
“I have always been drawn to nursing because nurses spend the most time with the patient, and build the strongest relationships with them,” said Renteria. “It was the combination of what my parents did in our daily living that inspired me to become a nurse and major in nutrition science.”
Both of Mexican descent, Maciel and Renteria met during their freshman year of college and formed a strong friendship that helped them co-found an organization that aims to improve the health of farmworkers, many of whom are Latino.
By promoting a healthy lifestyle through understanding, encouragement, and evidence-based practices, Maciel and Renteria work to bolster disease prevention.
During the summer before their senior years at the University of Pennsylvania, Maciel and Renteria became nurse interns with the Independence Blue Cross Foundation, and were assigned to a local community health center to gain practical clinical experience.
Renteria worked at Mary Howard Health Center, a comprehensive primary health care center for the homeless, where he learned how to collaborate with social workers to address the social determinants of health for the community. Maciel worked at Puentes de Salud, a volunteer-run community clinic that serves the Latino population in Philadelphia, and studied the increasing rates of nutrition-related diseases in the Latino community.
“We realized the life-changing impacts that could be made if we bring healthy interventions to people where we cannot miss them: in the workplace,” said Maciel.
During their senior year at Penn Nursing, Maciel and Renteria came up with the idea of Cultivando Juntos and pitched it to their mentor, Dr. Adriana Perez, assistant professor of nursing at Penn Nursing. Although initially they were interested in partnering with Philadelphia’s restaurant businesses, Dr. Perez connected them with individuals nearby who needed their help: the Latino community she works with in Kennett Square.
Less than an hour away from the city, and in their own backyard, Maciel and Renteria met with farm administrators and clinicians at South Mill to see the work they did in the mushroom capital of the world. In Kennett Square, like in many other farm-working communities, workers often live below the federal poverty line despite working 60-plus-hour work weeks.
Each week, Cultivando Juntos visited the farm and talked to the workers. They gave them recipes, and meal kits and ingredients that would teach them about healthier food options. It started as a three-month program consisting of 12 sessions and grew to have more than 60 participants.
“We tried to encourage individuals to try these new lifestyle habits by seeing it done in front of them,” said Maciel.
Renteria and Maciel applied for the 2019 Penn President’s Engagement Prize, and were awarded a $100,000 grant to help carry out the vision for Cultivando Juntos even further. “We are thankful that we can now expand Cultivando Juntos’ reach and show more local employers the difference we can make in farmworkers’ lives if we begin to reinvest in their needs, beginning with providing weekly healthy food packages at the workplace.”
Due to the pandemic, Maciel and Renteria are unable to visit South Mill. Since then, they’ve been looking for ways to help other community partners and discovered La Comunidad Hispana and Kennett Area Community Services, two organizations that provide great support for the community by handing out boxes of food and helping people pay rent to avoid homelessness. Maciel and Renteria now volunteer with Kennett Area Community Services on Fridays and help with handing out boxes that contain a month's worth of non-perishable goods.
“Although we couldn’t continue our traditional work with Cultivando Juntos in Kennett Square, we knew how important it was to support them in any way we could when the pandemic struck,” said Renteria.
Cultivando Juntos and Kennett Area Community Services plan to create a community kitchen in Kennett Square. Kennett Area Community Services would be responsible for funding, while Renteria and Maciel would serve as advisors for how to handle and create the healthy, low-cost foods that would be offered to the community.
The healthy food options will be designed to help prevent conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, which are very prevalent in the Latino community.“ We see the increasing rates of diabetes in our area, and something needs to be done to address that,” said Maciel.
Cultivando Juntos will also be contributing to the construction of the commercial kitchen with its remaining funds.
If there is one message the two would like to share about farm workers, it’s the hard-working and vibrant nature of their community. “Latino migrants are smart, passionate, hardworking people. As products of farm-working families, Antonio and I know firsthand that the people we work with at the farm are resilient and adaptable to change. We wish more people could get this kind of exposure working in their community and serving the Latino population,” said Maciel.
Whether it’s working within the nursing field or more directly in the farm-working community, they say their goal always remains to help others and make a positive, long-lasting impact.
For more in the Independence Blue Cross Foundation’s Nursing Program, visit https://www.ibx.com/careers/professional-development/nursing-internship-program.