Learn how low-income families and grassroots organizers are working together to plant community and school gardens so residents can have better access to healthy and affordable food. They’re not only fighting hunger. They’re also building community trust.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – On a warm fall day, volunteers unload mulch and shovel soil into raised beds on the shady side of Whittier Elementary School.
Whittier’s new garden is more than just a pea patch in this neighborhood on the city’s southeast side.
Whittier’s garden is part of a larger effort to address the systemic barriers to healthy food that low-income families face daily – what some call food apartheid. Access to affordable and fresh food is limited here. Most families near Whittier don’t live within walking distance of a grocery store, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports. Corner stores, with no affordable produce, and fast food restaurants are far more common.
This garden is also about power.
“The way that we address any issues of poverty or a lack of access to resources or community safety is about empowering communities to [be] the agents of change,” says George Luján, executive director of the SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP), which started Whittier’s garden program.
Whittier sits a block west of San Mateo Boulevard. If you keep driving west, you’ll see well-manicured parks surrounded by houses that are on the market for $400,000 or more. But, if you drive east, there are more worn-down apartment buildings, vacant lots and people experiencing homelessness.
Most students at Whittier live on the east side of the neighborhood.
“I come from this community and went to the area schools,” says Reyna Luz Juarez, the community school coordinator at Whittier.
Outcomes that are used to measure community health, such as drug overdoses and substantiated cases of child abuse, place the neighborhood at the top for the worst outcomes for kids in New Mexico, Luz Juarez says. She also surveys parents each year and the top two self-reported challenges are housing and food access.
“People are telling us, ‘We are hungry,’” Luz Juarez says.
Project Feed the Hood
Whittier’s garden is part of Project Feed the Hood, an initiative of SWOP. The nearly 40-year-old social justice organization has roots in community organizing around food sovereignty and cultural preservation. It helps communities create their own solutions, starting with young people.
“Here in New Mexico, we have a lot of land and a rich agrarian history,” Luján says.
But, many of the families SWOP works with have a hard time accessing affordable, locally grown foods, he adds. In SWOP’s early years, organizers recognized students were going to school hungry. So, they organized school breakfasts, like the Black Panthers did in other parts of the United States.
Project Feed the Hood now manages school gardens at 10 sites and runs the Ilsa and Rey Garduño community garden, which is less than two miles from Whittier Elementary and located in a food desert, which means residents have to travel more than a mile to reach a grocery store.
Talking with students and families about economic disparities and systemic inequality is part of SWOP’s mission.
“They don’t necessarily have the context for why their communities look the way they do,” says Mateo Carrasco, a second-year AmeriCorps Food Corps member with SWOP, who manages the garden at Whittier Elementary and works primarily with third grade students and teachers.
Organizers point to the lasting impacts of colonization, first by the Spanish and later by the U.S. government, as a reason why many students are growing up disconnected from their culture and history. And the neighborhood east of Whittier, which includes many immigrants and refugees, has received less investment from the city in recent decades.
Carrasco has a degree in Chicano studies and knows the history of New Mexico, but when working with students, he starts with what’s happening around them.
“Before we can begin to talk to them about their culture, we have to begin to unite them with the thing in which they’re a part of,” he says.
That means looking around the neighborhood and helping them connect with the plants they will grow in the garden. Carrasco also uses the garden space to support restorative justice. When students are in trouble, they can come outside to connect with nature and their feelings.
“A lot of times you don’t even have to ask,” Carrasco says. “These students carry so much pain and trauma that it just comes out naturally.”
Carrasco believes students need to be empowered to speak for themselves and take part in finding solutions to problems in their community.
“I use the garden as a way of exploring critical thinking,” Carrasco says. “I want my students to have the ability to leave my classroom and make observations about the world around them.”
Crime is one of those problems.
“Albuquerque is not a safe place for young people,” says John Acosta, a filmmaker and local organizer. He is concerned about the number of young people who have been killed in Albuquerque, often in gun violence, in recent years.
Earlier in 2019, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham sent 50 state police officers to Albuquerque after the high-profile shooting death of a University of New Mexico baseball player in Nob Hill, a nearby neighborhood with a vibrant nightlife.
It wasn’t welcomed by everyone in the community. George Luján says taxpayer money that funded the surge could have been utilized differently.
“What if we brought 50 extra caseworkers, therapists or mentors?” he says. “Anything other than 50 cops in the hood that’s already an overpoliced area.”
There’s a great need for more mental health services to help young people dealing with trauma, Acosta says.
“Our young people are just trying to be powerful” he says. “When it comes to gun violence or violence in general, that’s one way they’re manifesting power.”
Creating safe spaces for young people to make art, garden and connect with mentors is a crucial part of making the community a healthier place for young people, Acosta says.
In 2019, 11 young men and boys worked in gardens through SWOP’s Donaldo Yañez internship program, a paid work opportunity recently named after a 17-year-old SWOP intern who was killed in 2018.
“The garden was a refuge for him,” says Luján.
Working together to produce food is a powerful tool for organizing people who don’t have a lot of economic or political power, according to Reyna Luz Juarez.
“If we don’t have control, power or authority over housing, our jobs, pay, all of those other things,” she says, “what are the things we can control?”
In 2017, Whittier Elementary was at risk of being shut down by the state because of poor student performance on standardized tests. A new administration was brought in, and the school day was expanded. The garden is part of an effort to address the overall well-being of students’ families.
Travis McKenzie, who teaches at nearby Van Buren Middle School, has worked with Project Feed the Hood gardens for years. McKenzie sees even more potential in empty spaces near schools throughout the neighborhood.
“We can turn driveway dirt into a thriving garden,” he suggests. “We’re interested in the spaces that are neglected, that have sat fallow for years.”
A National Idea
The idea of turning abandoned spaces into community and school gardens isn’t unique to Albuquerque. McKenzie is inspired by projects like Detroit’s Feedom Freedom.
“We all have to eat,” says Myrtle Thompson-Curtis, executive director of Feedom Freedom, which cultivates a garden that covers four formerly vacant lots in Detroit. “Sometimes people don’t see the violence of what is happening in the food system, and we have to bring that to light.”
Thompson-Curtis says the garden adds to the beauty of the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood and has become a safe space for the community to have conversations about change.
“Utilizing gardens and vacant spaces has changed the conversations as far as our environment and things we can control,” she says.
In Oakland, California, Planting Justice was created in 2009, as the global financial crisis was growing.
“Gardens are the basis of our relationship with the Earth,” says co-founder Haleh Zandi. “The food system is one of the highest labor sectors where exploitation is happening – and we all eat food, so we’re all responsible for that system.”
Planting Justice started with a garden at San Quentin State Prison and now runs gardens at high schools, a farm and a nursery. Their work is deeply rooted in the neighborhood, but their vision is much larger. They want to change how we imagine ownership of the land that’s used to feed communities. There are currently more than 7,000 school gardens across the country, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“We’re hoping to expand and create more jobs for folks and really change the way that we treat land in this country,” says Zandi. The organization is interested in alternative models, like land trusts and community-based ownership.
Community Land Trusts give community members control over how the land is used, allowing for individual leases, while retaining ownership of the land for conservation or to ensure affordability for future generations.
“There is tremendous potential in people feeling like their communities are places that they get to steward and change and adapt,” says Renia Ehrenfeucht, a professor and chair of the Community and Regional Planning Department at the University of New Mexico.
Limits and a City’s Responsibility
Ehrenfeucht says community gardens hold potential for social change but also limitations.
People with low incomes might work multiple jobs and cultivating a garden takes years. Ehrenfeucht says it’s important to also hold city officials accountable for investing in neighborhoods in southeast Albuquerque, so people have more options for accessing fresh foods.
Travis McKenzie acknowledges school gardens are a small first step.
“A school garden isn’t going to change the disparities our community has to deal with,” he says. “Just having a little school garden isn’t going to make sure all our kids are eating food at home or moms aren’t skipping meals.”
But McKenzie says he believes there’s enormous untapped potential in school gardens.
A small garden, such as Whittier’s raised beds, could grow vegetables that could be used in a salad bar that introduces students to new foods. And larger gardens, on a quarter or half an acre, could produce enough fruits and vegetables to be used regularly in the cafeteria, he adds. That would require policy changes, like returning to cooking meals from scratch instead of relying on packaged foods for school lunches.
“We’re building much more than just a garden,” Luz Juarez says. “We’re building relationships and we’re building a learning experience. It’s going to be a slow process, and it has to be slow if we want to sustain it.”
Sarah Gustavus is a journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She has covered state politics, immigration and Native American communities for 15 years as a public radio and television producer and reporter. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original Equal Voice stories can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.