Building Border Food Security
Sprouting up in the Rio Grande Valley, a new organization seeks to reshape the production, distribution and consumption of food. Called La Semilla Food Center, the New Mexico-based project intends not only to grow and sell organic food, but also expose youth to new careers, inspire value-added industries, get locally-grown produce into large institutions, spin-off small businesses, and encourage nutritional awareness.
“Whether its schools, hospitals or nursing homes interested in buying foods,” said Aaron Sharratt, executive director of La Semilla Food Center. Based in Dona Ana County in New Mexico’s southern border region with Texas and Chihuahua, Mexico, La Semilla Food Center was launched this year with a three-year, $432,000 Kellogg Foundation grant.
Situated in Anthony on the New Mexico-Texas border, La Semilla’s 15 acres of farm land was donated by Kent Halla of Sierra Vista Growers.
Vital to the project, Sharratt said, is the creation of a “regional brand” that people will identify with when they purchase and consume food.
In a phone interview with Frontera NorteSur, Sharratt discussed the philosophical underpinnings that guide La Semilla’s business strategy.
According to the food activist, La Semilla is doing its part to build up a new food shed, a concept gaining popular currency which defines an area where food is produced and distributed.
For La Semilla, the regional food shed stretches from the northern end of Dona Ana County to the rural area south of El Paso, Texas. If neighboring Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, is taken into account, the population potentially served by a Paso del Norte food shed surpasses more than two million people.
Although tens of thousands of acres in the trans-border region are still devoted to agriculture, most of the farm and ranch products wind up in outside markets. Ironically, locally-raised produce like onions are shipped out of state before bouncing back for retail sale in New Mexico, Sharratt observed.
In a 2010 report for Bioneers’ Dreaming New Mexico Project funded by the McCune Foundation, economist Michael H. Shuman cited the New Mexico Climate Change Advisory Group in estimating that only about three percent of the food produced in New Mexico is consumed within the state.
Volatile energy and economic conditions in the world, Sharratt said, do not make the current economic arrangement very secure.
“I think there is growing consensus that that kind of system is incredibly fragile,” Sharratt said. “There is a desire to keep more of our food local.”
Statewide, New Mexico stands to gain an additional $1.4 billion in agricultural income if Dreaming New Mexico’s goal of 25 percent food localization is realized by 2020, according to the Shuman report. In addition to 10,000 new jobs, such a food market share would bring in $44 million to the state’s tax coffers, the study projected.
“To put the jobs number in perspective, it’s worth noting that 100 percent food localization would provide a job to more than half of all New Mexicans unemployed today,” Shuman wrote.
According to Shuman, new employment opportunities could emerge in livestock production, meat processing, fruit and vegetable growing, nurseries, bakeries, and more. A promising area for growth is in the supermarket or grocery store segment, he added.
Known for its arid landscape, New Mexico also encompasses vast stretches of “food deserts” where residents don’t have access to plentiful, nutritional and affordable food.
Privately-owned, out-of-state chains like Wal-Mart, Smith’s and Albertson’s dominate much of the remaining market, distinguishing themselves in recent years by practices such as closing stores, turning customers into checkers and baggers, cutting down on the variety of consumer foods and quietly increasing prices by selling products in smaller packages, among other innovations.
Off the farm and away from the store shelf, La Semilla hopes to influence the local food system by assisting in the formation of a food policy council that brings together community organizations and government agencies. Across the US and Canada, food policy councils address issues like the nutritional value of food served in public schools. A new food policy council could even consider enacting “junk-food free zones” around schools, said Rebecca Wiggins, La Semilla’s farm fresh director.
“You can’t sell cigarettes or alcohol, so why should you be able to sell junk food?” Wiggins asked.
A 2008 report by the New Mexico Food Gap Task Force estimated that diabetes, which is often associated with poor dietary habits acquired at an early age, costs New Mexico $1.2 billion every year.
Promoting environmental and consumer health benefits are chief among La Semilla’s top priorities, Sharratt stressed. Sticking to its principles, the organization does not plan to use chemical pesticides in its farming.
“It would be contradictory for us to be putting chemicals in the soil and affecting the health of people” he added.
La Semilla germinated from of a two-year project undertaken by the Las Cruces-based Colonias Development Council (CDC) in the rural, low-income Dona Ana County communities of Vado, Anthony and Chaparral. Working with immigrant and non-immigrant residents, the CDC planted three community gardens and built two greenhouses.
“Out of that, we saw the really clear need for an organization that was focused on food and food-related work,” Wiggins told Frontera Norte-Sur.
Supported by the Youth Conservation Corps, the CDC recruited and trained local youth as budding farmers and conscious consumers. Following the CDC’s lead, La Semilla has a youth organizer, Cristina Dominguez, to spearhead the task.
Depending on funding, La Semilla envisions a summer employment program for 10-15 young people mainly from the Anthony area, Dominguez said. A veteran of the CDC project, Dominguez said she witnessed enthusiasm and commitment on the part of young people who discovered a sense of “ownership” in growing gardens.
“I think it’s been really positive,” Dominguez said of the youthful exposure to farming.
An El Paso resident who once worked for the farm advocacy group Heifer International, Dominguez called the youth programs sponsored by the CDC and now La Semilla examples of a “heart, hand and mind engagement” approach that takes learning out of the classroom and into the real world.
Even if young participants do not become farmers, Dominguez said, they will at least gain fundamental knowledge of how food is produced and how it should be prepared, in addition to experiencing the collective accomplishment of transforming a “barren space into something that is thriving.”
Given its border location and presence in a binational metroplex, La Semilla would eventually like to have partnerships extend across the border to Ciudad Juarez and the nearby Juarez Valley, Sharratt added.
Geographically and historically, the US and Mexico are bound together in the Paso del Norte. A shared river, the Rio Grande, irrigates crops on both sides of the border, many Juarenses shop for food in El Paso and Mexican farmworkers toil away in the fields of southern New Mexico and far west Texas.
“We really hope to make it a regional effort, because Juarez is really integral to our region,” Sharratt said.
For the moment, however, criminal violence in Ciudad Juarez and its environs complicates any cross-border effort. On other fronts, La Semilla’s staff members emphasized that their new organization is collaborating with other organizations in New Mexico including the Women’s Intercultural Center of Anthony, Farm-to-Table in Santa Fe and the Taos County Economic Development Corporation in the northern part of the state.
As 2011 looms, La Semilla is looking at a busy year. On the new farm, a well must be put to work and old cotton land nurtured for eventual planting. Later, in the fall, La Semilla plans the Paso’s Del Norte’s first regional food summit aimed at bringing together anyone connected with the food system.
“We’re really excited,” Wiggins said. “We’re all really passionate about it.”
In Cristina Dominguez’s view, the new organization’s Spanish name, La Semilla, or “The Seed,” has both a literal and representative meaning. “I hope this is just the beginning,” she said. “The reconnection to our foods comes from the value and dignity from growing food for our community.”
Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico