EL PASO — Almost four years ago, founders of La Semilla Food Center went on a mission to build a more sustainable and self-reliant food system in the El Paso-Las Cruces, NM, border region.
In 2010, Aaron Sharratt, Cristina Dominguez-Eshelman, and Rebecca Wiggins-Reinhard created a small community garden in Anthony, New Mexico. Today they farm land, create policy to help local farmers, and organize numerous community outreach programs.
“They took on a task that seems monumental to me, but because people in our region are so unfamiliar with food justice issues and food systems. It takes a lot of education,” said Catherine Yanez, La Semilla Program and Outreach Coordinator. “We’ve already seen a difference in the people that we’re engaging; we’re seeing that light bulb turn on.”
Within their community outreach programs, La Semilla hosts many youth projects. And through them La Semilla has engaged more than 800 local children. The Raíces de Tradición y Salud Program invites youths during the summer to participate in learning all aspects of the food process, from farm to kitchen. They plant, harvest, learn how to irrigate, and learn about soil health. They also participate in cooking demonstrations so that once they learn how to grow these plants they also become familiar with ways to process the food, package, and cook it.
In School Garden Programs students from elementary to high school plant carrots, tomatoes, and greens while incorporating study in math and biology. They learn about the importance of knowing where their food comes from and to start understanding that food doesn’t come from the supermarket, that somebody grew it. Ultimately, the goal is for students to take this knowledge home to their families.
Efren Villalobos, School Garden Coordinator, said this program is great because it’s something different and it helps children to be less hesitant when it comes to tasting different foods that are considered healthy. Whenever these kids don’t want to eat the new produce, he just reminds them that they put in too much work not to even try them.
Currently La Semilla has seven school gardens in Las Cruces and Anthony, New Mexico, and is looking to expand in the region.
Aside from the health aspect, La Semilla also focuses on educating the public about farming issues surrounding famers, the history behind them, and how all that ties to the community. They want to give people information about the food process and food systems so that they are able to engage in a more active role in helping to take on some of the struggles farmers face.
“We talk to the community about the difficulties that farmers go through and the injustices, not only for migrant workers, but also for the farmers,” said Yanez. “When you go to the supermarket, for every dollar you spend on an item, a very small amount actually goes back to the farmer. “
Krysten Aguilar, Food Planning & Policy Coordinator, wants the community to have control and the knowledge of how their purchasing decisions and eating habits can affect others. She said it’s very important to know where food and products came from because every choice that people make from what they put in their bodies has repercussions.
“If you buy food that is shipped in from another country they might have horrible labor practices, you don’t know if workers are being paid a fair wage,” said Aguilar. “You don’t know how it was grown or what was put on it; you have no control over what happens. It might be corporations, whose bottom line is profit, making those decisions for you. “
La Semilla is also actively involved in advocating for policy changes and legislation to make it easier for more small famers to grow in our region. They work with many local organizations such as the Colonias Development Council, Dona Ana Food Planning & Policy Taskforce and the El Paso Equitable Food Policy Group.
As a result of combined efforts, in 2012, the Las Cruces City Council adopted a resolution to support the Las Cruces Farm to School Program, which supports future community partnerships to encourage school gardens and the education of local food sourcing. They are currently working on joining community members in both Las Cruces and El Paso to work on establishing healthier food systems and local economic development.
“One of the big ones we’re working on is in Las Cruces; we’re helping with the formation of the Food Policy Council,” said Aguilar. “This will bring in a lot of different stakeholders together to work on all different issues having to deal with food systems from production all the way to the table consumption, local food sourcing, distribution and everything in between it.”
La Semilla Food Center is able to work on community and policy outreach through grants funded by several organizations including the Will Keith Kellogg Foundation and the United States Department of Agriculture. Funding from the Farmers Market Promotion Program enables La Semilla to gather and promote local famers and produce at events like the El Paso Downtown Artist and Farmers Market, the Las Cruces Farmers and Crafts Market and the Ardovino’s Desert Crossing Farmers Market.
La Semilla currently has 11 staff members and hopes to continue working and expanding both locally and nationally with the help of community volunteers.
They encourage people to learn and take action in eating healthier and supporting local famers, even through the smallest of actions. “It’s a movement now because people are concerned about what we’re leaving behind and what we’re doing to our bodies and our communities,” Aguilar said. “So baby steps, every little thing counts.”