What began as a community gardening effort has grown into La Semilla Food Center, a nonprofit working to build a healthy, fair and sustainable food system in the Paso del Norte region of New Mexico. In a region bereft of opportunities—with a significant high school dropout rate and lacking after-school activities—community members decided to engage youth in gardening projects that brought academic subjects to life while creating a healthy, affordable and culturally appropriate food source for the desert area.
True to its name—Spanish for seed—La Semilla is the start of something larger. Its vision is to develop a complete, economically viable local foodshed. At the same time, La Semilla Food Center serves as a place where young people and families can come together and see tangible evidence of the impact they can have in their own community.
Creating a Community Focal Point Around Food
The community gardens in the towns of Chaparral, Anthony and Vado have done more than transform dirt lots into oases in the middle of the desert. They have awakened community members to food access and health issues, as well as to the potential of youth to engage as citizens and impact the community now and in the future.
Developing programs for youth is central to La Semilla, according to Executive Director Aaron Sharratt, who sees youth programming as an opportunity to address a number of compounding factors affecting youth in the region, including low graduation rates, high obesity rates and high rates of diabetes.
The goal of La Semilla, says Youth & Family Programs Instructor Christina Dominguez-Eshelman, is to connect lessons from school with applied experience on the land. Her hope is that “themes in the classroom become real out here, and that youth become engaged citizens in their community, the state and nationally.”
For youth leader Jose Lopez, La Semilla is about helping others in the community in the here and now. “I have been in the garden,” Lopez says. “I have been involved. And I have seen those faces, how people get so happy when they get a bag of tomatoes, when they get a bag of squash. It's a great joy of them, and it's valuable, it's worth more than money.”
Making Connections Within and Beyond the Community
Growing beyond the original community gardens, La Semilla is developing a demonstration farm on a donated 15-acre parcel of farmland. Plans also are underway for an experiential training program for 50 youth to learn sustainable and dryland farming techniques, permaculture design principles, desert food heritage and social entrepreneurship skills.
La Semilla is extending programs into local schools and with other organizations focused on food systems change. For example, it has partnered with the Colonias Development Council to establish the Youth Food Policy Council in southern Doña Ana County. The Youth Food Policy Council engages young people to work with community members to identify food access barriers, as well as steps to address the problem, including recommendations to the appropriate governing bodies.
In fall 2011, the first La Semilla Food Summit brought together residents, educators, professionals, community gardeners and farmers from throughout the Paso del Norte region to sow the seeds of a regional foodshed. The summit provided an opportunity to celebrate food, learn from each other and develop common understandings about the links between food, health, the environment and local economies.
Going forward, La Semilla will continue to expand awareness around food issues in the Paso del Norte region, guided by the belief that doing so leads to each person’s awareness of his or her potential to impact the community and create a more just world. As it plants the seed of a new local food system, La Semilla is cultivating a new generation of youth leaders with the skills and passion to address systemic inequities—today and in the future.
To learn more about La Semilla Food Center, visit www.lasemillafoodcenter.org