Harvest of Hope
Grant County produces a bumper crop of ways to fight hunger while promoting sustainability.
By Sharman Apt Russell
Vision: sight; the ability to see; visual faculty.
Good vision means that we see well, perhaps that we see things that are half-hidden or in the shadows.
Hunger in America is often hidden in the shadows, despite the fact that one in 10 people in this country experiences some form of food insecurity. New Mexico is one of the top "hungry" states, a place where one in four children and one in six seniors do not always know how or when they will get their next meal.
Hungry people are our neighbors, colleagues, acquaintances, friends and relatives. We see them in the street. We see them on the playground. Sometimes we have to look closely to see that they are suffering from the emotional and physical stress of chronic food shortage. Maybe they missed last night's dinner. Maybe they skipped breakfast so their kids could eat. Maybe they know they will run out of food by the end of the month.
Vision: an act of imagination; a vivid conception of what could be.
Hunger is usually a result of poverty, although hunger related to mental illness and substance abuse can affect any family in any economic group. Hunger is a complex problem, and the solutions to a complex problem are often varied and require imagination, a leap forward into the future, a sense of hope, and a willingness to fail (because not even trying is worse than trying and failing).
When the two definitions of vision — sight and imagination — combine, wonderful things can happen, and wonderful things are happening here and now in Grant County. Only a year ago, in October 2008, The Volunteer Center (a non-profit organization based in Silver City) launched its "Lift Every Voice" program, a series of town hall meetings in Bayard, Mimbres Valley, Cliff/Gila and Silver City that addressed issues of hunger and poverty. Out of these group discussions came a multitude of committees, and out of these committees a vision emerged that emphasizes sustainability and empowerment: school children planting and eating their own fresh vegetables, single mothers learning to produce and market their great-grandmother's famous salsa, people of all ages growing food, cooking food and eating food together.
By necessity, this vision includes many parts — an emergency food pantry, community gardens, special services for elders and children, community-based service learning for WNMU students, and two Food Security Centers with greenhouses. It encompasses permaculture systems of farming, energy-efficient classrooms and meeting spaces, food distribution resources, retail space and a commercial kitchen open to the public.
The plan is ambitious — even a bit daunting. Yet the energy generated by the staff and board members of The Volunteer Center and by their collaborative partners throughout Silver City and the mining district is almost palpable. In this leap forward — this vision of hope — neighbors work together harvesting vine-ripened tomatoes while their children run between the rows munching on carrots. The sky is a bright New Mexican blue, the air smells like sweet basil, and the future looks good.
More often than not, hunger cannot wait for vision to catch up to its need. In 2005, Alimento para el Nino began as a group of citizens who gave out backpacks of nutritious snacks to school children going hungry over the weekend (see "The Backpack Brigade," August 2007). The Volunteer Center agreed to be the fiscal agent for this pilot program, which provided food every Friday for some 30 students at Harrison Schmitt and Sixth Street elementary schools. Alicia Edwards, director of The Volunteer Center, says the program helped open her eyes to the reality of hunger in Grant County. She was also struck by the generosity of the community, whose pocketbooks opened. Organizations like the Silver Schools and Benwood Foundation made large donations, while small checks of $10, $25 and $100 streamed in every week.
Today, only four years later, Alimento para el Nino has grown 10-fold, serving over 300 children in the Silver and Cobre schools. The Volunteer Center is now in charge of the program and last summer helped distribute backpacks of food to some 4,000 children participating in the free lunch program in southern New Mexico.
Organizing a new food pantry in Silver City for adults and families was the next step. In April 2009, that pantry began giving out basic commodities (organic beans, rice, peanut butter, pasta), canned products, juices and other goods in the Wherehouse on the corner of Texas and San Vicente Street. Since then — on the first Saturday of the month, 10 a.m.-noon, and the last Wednesday, 4-6 p.m. — the pantry has served over 380 families in need of food. The Silver City Food Co-op is an important partner, donating meeting and work space for the volunteers, 10 hours a week of staff time, and a cornucopia of free produce — from onions, garlic, tomatoes, squash and green beans to the more exotic artichokes and honeydew melons. Local gardeners bring seasonal vegetables through the "Grow a Row to Share" program, and the Humane Society has even contributed pet food. Major donations have come from local philanthropists, along with many smaller gifts, and hundreds of hours in volunteer time.
Carolyn Smith, the Food Co-op's Community Outreach Coordinator, says that education is part of the food pantry's service: "When we brought kale and chard one time, some people had never seen it before, so we began to provide recipes and information about cooking and preparing food." The Volunteer Center hands out material on other resources in town, as do organizations like Hidalgo Medical Services.
Growing the Food
Four years ago, Loretta Marrufo started the Bayard Community Garden with the vision of "providing fresh organic food to the people of Bayard." A fifth-generation native, Marrufo wanted to raise her own daughter in a community that celebrated healthy eating, exercise and sustainable ways of producing food. Across from Bayard's City Hall and next door to the Police and Fire Station, the garden has 11 large beds belonging to individual gardeners and a communal orchard area. A permaculture demonstration site includes swales (contoured ditches for passive water harvesting) and appropriate plantings in and around the orchard. Marrufo's dream is that the community garden will become a self-sustaining outdoor classroom for children that also provides income for local families as well as vegetables.
For the last two years she has taught children at Bayard Elementary School to garden where they can and when they can — in pickle barrels provided by the school cafeteria. The project teaches children about recycling, saving water and gardening creatively. The Pickle Bucket Garden Program is now part of the summer backpack program run by The Volunteer Center. Marrufo, who has also worked as an Americorps staff member at The Volunteer Center, recently joined the center's board.
In Silver City, at 707 Hudson St., a sister community garden was started by The Volunteer Center this year. The priorities are to provide land for people without access and to grow food for the food pantry and school backpack program. Workshop and teaching days are also planned. Even as cars drive past on the busy street, the gardeners are producing tomatoes and squash, melon and cabbage. Shelby Cox, the volunteer director, says that the main work of creating 12 raised beds is now done and he looks forward to some late-season crops and the relatively low maintenance of next spring. New volunteers may include clients from Life Quest and other organizations in town.
Each garden benefited this summer from a $500 donation from Single Socks, a nonprofit thrift store on the corner of College and Texas Street that opened last April after co-founders Jeff Goin and Kathleen Wigley were inspired by the "Lift Every Voice" meetings. The mission of the store is to raise money for issues related to hunger and poverty. The store receives its stock through donations and is run almost entirely by volunteers.
Squash, socks, pickles and pet food — the connections begin to grow as one idea leads to the next. As a vision takes hold.
Growing a Community
At Western New Mexico University, Emma Bailey's Sociology of Food class is also planning a university/community garden on land donated by WNMU as part of its Food Security Initiative. In collaboration with The Volunteer Center, one of the initiative's main goals is to promote community-based or service learning.
Bailey, the coordinator of the program, explains that service learning is a national movement, a hands-on educational strategy that takes students out of the classroom into the community. A service learning project might mean working at a homeless shelter or an assisted care facility, with these experiences followed by written reflection and class discussion. Students in WNMU's Sociology of Food class will be doing their service learning by designing both the physical and social structure of the new university/community garden at 10th and West Street — not only where the plots will go but how the garden will operate as a joint venture. Who will decide on what to plant, who will do the work, and who will get the food?