Casa de Salud is Spanish for "House of Health." And one recent night, a dozen cooks of Hispanic heritage gathered at this midtown location to learn more healthful preparations of traditional foods.

"The goal is teaching them how to make a healthy, delicious meal on a budget," says Christina Popp, a registered dietitian and staff member of the St. Louis University Cancer Center who is teaching the class.

"And it's healthy, but it's also culturally familiar," adds Eileen Wolfington, Casa de Salud's lead community health worker.

Casa de Salud opened in 2010 as a health and wellness clinic for uninsured or underinsured Latinos in the St. Louis area. SLU sponsors Casa de Salud, renting a building for $1 a year and providing faculty and students who make up a majority of its volunteers. Casa de Salud also has partnerships with Washington University's Center for Latino Family Research, Health Literacy Missouri and many other local organizations and businesses. 

Almost immediately upon opening, demand exceeded expectations, and Casa de Salud's facility — in an old auto parts store at the corner of Compton and Chouteau avenues, at the edge of SLU's medical campus — added 4,000 square feet in 2012, doubling its size. 

In conjunction with diagnosis and treatment (and referral to more comprehensive facilities when necessary), Casa de Salud offers a number of programs aimed at increasing health literacy among the local Hispanic community and promoting healthier lifestyles. This night's class is part of Despensa de Salud (Pantry of Health), which teaches practical skills such as understanding nutritional labeling and serving healthful portion sizes.

The cooks pair off in alcoves in the instructional kitchen of SLU's nutrition and dietetics department, a few blocks' walk from the Casa de Salud building. After they get settled, they set about measuring and chopping in preparation for making gazpacho, quesadillas and a watermelon cooler.

Popp's encouragement and instruction are bilingual, and several of the class members warm when she addresses them in Spanish.

"Sometimes our students only speak English, and sometimes they only speak Spanish," Popp says. "Sometimes it's neither — they speak a dialect of some mountain region."

On this evening, several children have tagged along — although fewer than the most recent class, says Popp.

"The last session, the younger ones were the ones who wanted to be cooking," Popp says. "Sometimes our grad students will play with the kids, and we also have activities for them to learn about healthy eating habits."

And sometimes, Casa de Salud staff and volunteers go above and beyond to ensure that class members and their families can get here.

"Sometimes not everyone can make it, so they have to go pick up people from their houses," Popp says.

After the cooking is completed, Popp talks to the class about various aspects of shopping, preparation and nutrition.

"I came here to learn a different way how to make the foods," says class member Sam Bolanos, who has spent the evening making quesadillas. Bolanos is no stranger to the kitchen; he works in one at a downtown restaurant.

"There's always something new, something better to learn," he says.

Now, however, it's time to eat. Several of the children have already wandered back into the room and have been eyeing the food, and those who haven't return quickly and join the table.

"This is the best part of the night, and why I think this program works so well," Wolfington says. "Latino families are very unified, and so to do this as families makes so much sense."