Down Five Points Road in the South Valley of Albuquerque, New Mexico, past yellowing dirt yards and one-story homes behind chain link fences, Joseph Alfaro looks out over 10 long rows of vibrant green and purple salad mesclun. Behind him five large hoop houses are brimming with carrot fronds, tomato plants and colorful rainbow chard. Just a couple years ago, this lot was an abandoned junkyard, full of trash and drug paraphernalia.
“Now look at it,” Alfaro says proudly, “we have neighbors and local groups all around us involved. We’re growing food and we’re growing farmers. Ultimately, we’re growing lives.”
This small urban farm is a bright spot in a neighborhood often characterized by dismal statistics. The South Valley is a semi-rural area with limited access to quality health care and fresh food. It is one of the poorest areas in New Mexico, with about 95% of students receiving free or reduced lunch, a common measure of family economic security.
Alfaro is the farm manager of Valle Encantado Farms, one of the founding farms of the thriving Agri-Cultura Network (ACN). The ACN began in 2009 as a collaborative project between three South Valley community groups: La Plazita Institute, E-merging Communities and Valle Encantado, who benefitted from a farmer training program through the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). The organizations came together to spur economic development in the area by supporting year-round, financially viable and self-sustainable producers. They learned how to grow using organic and sustainable methods, secured land and tools, and created jobs for local community members. As the farms flourished, the collective bloomed into a farmer-owned brokerage, to jointly sell their produce to markets and restaurants.
Since its launch, the network has rapidly spread its roots in many directions throughout the community. This past year, the cooperative expanded from nine to 11 urban farms and the distribution of their sustainable produce has gone far beyond farm-to-table. ACN's fruits and vegetables are finding their way all throughout the area, going truly farm-to-community.
For example, through a state legislative appropriation, a group of North Valley schools in the Albuquerque Public Schools system has been purchasing ACN’s fresh salad greens for their lunches.
“Providing these students access to healthy food is really about investing in community health,” says Jamie Hensley, ACN network manager. “It gets them excited about eating fresh, local food from a young age, and we know that sometimes this school lunch is the only nutritious meal they’re getting that day.”
The schools receives 140 to 200 pounds of salad greens a week, which are processed and packed in the shared commercial kitchen in the South Valley Economic Development Center, where ACN has its office. Jamie is looking forward to expanding their school partnership to further connect students to their food, through field trips and work-study opportunities with the farms.
The breadth of the community effort is best exemplified in ACN’s Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, La Cosecha (the Harvest). La Cosecha CSA provides weekly bags of fresh produce to members for 25 weeks during the harvest season, but they have an inspiring twist. They’ve built their model so that half of their members receive drastically reduced-cost, subsidized produce.
Anzia Bennett, La Cosecha’s program director, says it was the logical next step. “We realized that many families in the areas who lived around the ACN farms couldn’t afford to buy the food,” she says. “Our mission is to promote sustainable economic development and healthy eating in the South Valley, so we needed to ensure our most vulnerable families had access.”
Through a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, La Cosecha CSA was able to pilot and test the subsidization project. They started with 20 families and experimented with the pricing, while also accepting food stamps. After the first year, they quickly grew to more than 100 families, subsidizing half of them. In 2014, more than 230 families are participating.
“The Kellogg Foundation support was invaluable because it gave us space to test and refine our model,” she said. “That first year, we also learned that a lot of families needed to get more comfortable with all this new produce they had never tried cooking before.”
In addition to providing healthy recipes with the weekly food bags, La Cosecha CSA began partnering with local community and health organizations to develop materials about healthy eating, nutrition and chronic disease prevention. At the same time, other South Valley family initiatives, such as the Abriendo Puertas early childhood effort, enrolled their mothers and young children into the CSA as part of their nutrition education programs. Through this work, it became clear that there was powerful potential in connecting organizations that shared a similar vision for their community. La Cosecha CSA is now working with 13 community organizations to reach even more families with young children living in the South Valley
“We just had our first cooking class with the Nurse-Family Partnership (a home visitation program for low-income first-time mothers) and it was so exciting to see all the babies watching their moms,” Bennett said. “That’s what it’s all about, knowing that these kids and families will grow up eating healthier and happier.”
A few blocks away at Centro Savila, a community mental health center that partners with La Cosecha CSA for weekly food distribution, Dr. William Wagner has seen the effect healthy foods can have on his patients. “When we look at our clients’ challenges, we can’t ignore the role that economic security and poverty plays,” he said. “It’s hard to deal with depression, for example, if you’re food insecure and hungry. We need to help families address these basic needs to really help them overcome other issues.”
La Cosecha’s partners, ranging from the Southwest Organizing Project to the Casa de Salud health center just blocks away, all echo the same excitement about the comprehensive system they are creating. This network of support is working together to lift up the most vulnerable in their community, through health, economic development, education and much more.