La Semilla Food Center and
the New Mexico Healthy Food Financing Act
By Ellie Duke
“You can’t really talk about justice and equity without talking about land,” said Krysten Aguilar, co–executive director of La Semilla Food Center, a nonprofit based in southern New Mexico and El Paso whose mission is to create a sustainable, equitable food system in the region. “It’s a source of stability and wealth for communities,” she continued. “If you don’t have sovereignty over land, well, that’s how people wield power over others, by controlling resources.”
La Semilla grew out of a community garden project to meet the need for an organization focused on a systems-wide approach to the root causes of hunger and food insecurity. These issues are often, if not always, rooted in inequity and injustice, particularly in communities of color. The organization’s latest enterprise is the formulation and shepherding of the New Mexico Healthy Food Financing Act (HFFA), an initiative that will provide loans, forgivable loans, and grants that support the food economy in underserved communities. The legislation had unanimous senate support and passed to the house during the regular session in March 2021, where the House Health & Human Services Committee recommended its passage. “One of the really exciting things about [the HFFA] is that the community has just been amazingly supportive and has pushed and championed this from so many different organizations,” said Aguilar. “This kind of stuff doesn’t come to fruition with the efforts of one person and one group. It truly has been a community-driven effort.” It is fitting, and to the folks at La Semilla, encouraging, that an initiative that could dramatically increase the welfare of the state’s most vulnerable citizens has such widespread community support.
This legislation could be pivotal in New Mexico. The state consistently has the first- or second-highest rates of child poverty in the country, which correlates with a wide range of social and economic problems, hunger being one of the most dire. Youth in New Mexico have the highest rates of food insecurity in the nation, with about one in four children having unstable access to healthy food, according to Feeding America. Over 40 percent of New Mexican households receive SNAP benefits. As such, the state is ripe for an injection of capital that supports food economy and infrastructure, and creates long-term benefits—increased regional wealth, increased access to healthy food, and increased connection to land and community. “It’s one of those rare win-wins that really has a ripple effect,” said Aguilar.
The Healthy Food Financing Act, sponsored by Senator Carrie Hamblen and Representative Angelica Rubio, is based on a framework called Equitable Food Oriented Development (EFOD). The EFOD structure, which stems from a recognition that traditional lending models were not serving the needs of communities of color, aims to create healthier food systems and economies in marginalized communities. Prioritizing long-term impact and forgivable and “patient” loan structures, EFOD strives to recapitalize communities that have suffered historic divestment through traditional community-based food economy development. La Semilla is part of the national EFOD steering committee, and Aguilar explained that they “thought it was really important to include that framework, and that understanding of justice and equity in capitalizing these projects. We thought it was vital to inject the HFFA with those concepts and . . . really root it in justice and equity.”
The New Mexico Department of Agriculture boasts that agriculture is one of the state’s principal industries, and the state is increasing its output annually. But as Aguilar explained, the state exports 97 percent of its agricultural products and spends $6.5 billion a year on imported food. Food shortage isn’t the problem; access and equity is. New Mexico’s local food chain—like all local food chains—competes against a conventional global supply chain that is highly subsidized. The low-interest loans, forgivable loans, and grant packages that the HFFA would provide to regional farms, food hubs, and food retail operations in underserved communities would give the local food economy support similar to the kind that the mass-produced food supply chain receives.
La Semilla is working closely with New Mexico’s Economic Development Department to make the HFFA a public-private partnership, bringing in private impact investors and philanthropic organizations to complement the investment from the state. The HFFA model has been used in more than a dozen other states and cities, and has been around for over a decade. Aguilar explained that while many of these projects have emphasized retail, that approach would reach fewer people and have much less impact in a largely rural state like New Mexico. Therefore, implementation in New Mexico will take a broader approach, with funds supporting food production, distribution, processing, and marketing, in an effort to reach more of New Mexico’s most underserved populations. The bill is also specifically designed to increase investment and improve systems in low- and moderate-income communities that are underserved in terms of food access. BIPOC folks and business owners will be prioritized, as well as agroecological and regenerative farming practices. “The hope is that this will be a stepping stone,” said Aguilar, “to start putting these pieces in place one by one, so maybe small farmers are able to aggregate all of the greens or all of the onions from thirty small farmers in order to fulfill an order to a school district.”
There are huge potential economic benefits to the HFFA, as well as positive environmental and health outcomes. An overlooked and equally important benefit is to the cultural and civic life of our state. “Nobody got into farming to get rich,” said Aguilar. “There’s something else that happens when we have that relationship with the land. Our [farmers and farmworkers] should be able to feed their families, yes, but there is something deeper that is uniquely human about it.” She went on to describe La Semilla’s vision for the ideal regional food system in New Mexico, one that supports the collective relationship to land and allows people to make a living and feed their communities and families in a healthy way. She described a food system in which farmers who are retiring can connect with young people who want to farm, instead of selling their land for development, and where Indigenous communities can grow and consume and build their lives around their traditional foods. This vision is far from utopian: it is a necessary component of an equitable, sustainable society.
NOTE: While the HFFA did not ultimately reach the house floor for a vote in 2021, Senator Hamblen allocated $100,000 for the program, and La Semilla and other partners are working to secure additional funds and to solidify support for the bill leading up to the next legislative session. La Semilla’s hope is that it is the first of many steps toward the vision of an egalitarian, sovereign food economy in New Mexico.