Two Chicanas’ Story about Project Feed the Hood

By Divana Olivas and Stefany Olivas

When we first met each other, we joked how we might be related somehow. We each divulged what we knew about our lineages to see if it warranted further investigation, and while we discovered we are not related, we would learn over time that we most certainly had a lot in common. Divana was raised by Mexican-immigrant parents from Namiquipa, Chihuahua, in a small town called El Cerro Mission in the Tomé area. Stefany was raised in a small town thirty minutes north of Albuquerque, in a family with roots in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. We both had an urge to dig deeper into our identities, get involved, and build up our communities. Our paths converged in 2014 when Divana worked as a summer youth intern with Project Feed the Hood and Stefany was becoming a more prominent organizer with the program.

This story is about Project Feed the Hood, an initiative of the SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP) and a beacon of food justice in New Mexico; however, it also represents the experience of many who are empowered to live their truths. Our journey is about how we have come to live our truths and step into our powers as two young Chicanas whose work with Feed the Hood has inspired our studies of food systems and activism.

SWOP was founded in 1980 by young activists of color who came together to build an organization and community network that could advance environmental and economic justice across the Southwest. In the early 1990s, organizers at SWOP were integral to raising awareness about environmental racism in our state. In 2009, Rodrigo Rodriguez, Travis McKenzie, and Joaquín Luján launched Feed the Hood to expand on this work. McKenzie came up with a slogan that neatly described their vision: “Planting Seeds for Community Needs.”

Luján has deep roots in New Mexico that led him to his interest in food justice. A longtime member and organizer with SWOP, Luján grew up in the Duranes neighborhood in Albuquerque and came of age during the 1960s and 1970s, at the height of the Chicana/o/x movement. He was a member of the Black Berets, a group of Chicana/o/x activists who organized for self-determination and community empowerment. From 1969 to 1971, Luján helped to organize the group’s Free Breakfast Program based at their center, El Mestizo, located in the historic Atrisco neighborhood in Albuquerque’s South Valley. Also a farmer, he has raised chile, melons, tomatoes, and other crops since 2014 at Rancho Entre dos Acequias in Polvadera. Luján is an important elder and a mentor to many, and he remains an integral part of the food justice work today. With Feed the Hood, Luján planted the seed that food can be a tool for community organizing. He says, “You know, I use chile as an organizing tool. We start off talking about chile and end up talking about water rights. We can because that’s available to us from where we are.” In the cofounders’ vision, the project could reclaim unused city land to build a community garden, providing both produce and a place for resolana (a meeting place to converse where the sun shines). People could share memories, knowledge, and their dreams for the future while growing, cooking, and eating food.

This vision became a reality with Feed the Hood’s agroecology community garden, a one-acre plot with a field of sunflowers, fresh corn, squash, greens, and other crops surrounded by empty, neglected lots just north of Kirtland Air Force Base in southeast Albuquerque. The garden is a vibrant space where young people of color come together to learn how to grow food and tap into elders’ agrarian wisdom. Every summer, paid internships bring together passionate, curious staff and interns, just as the 2014 summer internship brought us together. At the time, we were in our early twenties, older than most of the high school interns, but still young and impressionable.

Like other young participants, we not only put farm training into practice, but engaged in critical discussions of food justice. Instead of using the mainstream term “food desert” to describe neighborhoods with limited access to healthy foods, interns learn to use the term “food apartheid,” coined by Black Urban Growers cofounder Karen Washington. One of the lessons shared is how the dearth of fresh fruits and vegetables in certain neighborhoods is not a natural part of the landscape, like a desert, but a result of systemic racism, land displacement, and intentional disinvestment from urban communities and communities of color. In this way, food justice becomes about more than reforming our current system; it is about inspiring young people to imagine an entirely new one.

So many incredible young men and women have participated in the internship program—hardworking and passionate leaders who, through planting seeds, step into their power and find an opportunity to create real change. The summer we met, Donaldo Yañez-Reyes, one of the program’s very first interns, participated in the same Youth Empowerment Summer Institute cohort Divana did. He had started volunteering in Feed the Hood’s community garden when he was just eleven. Three years ago, Yañez-Reyes was tragically shot and killed at the young age of seventeen. To honor his memory, Feed the Hood created the Donaldo Yañez-Reyes Youth Internship, a paid summer farmer-training program for middle- and high-school youth.

Feed the Hood plants seeds literally, in the earth, bringing joy and dignity to young men like Yañez-Reyes, and also symbolically, planting seeds for a movement for food justice. As interns learn through hands-on experience, land access is central to food justice. New Mexico is a land-rich state, but it also has one of the poorest economies. Roughly twenty-five thousand New Mexican farms sell nearly
$3 billion of food products per year, yet one-quarter of the children in the state are hungry. According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, white-only producers own twelve thousand more farms, and roughly fifteen million more acres of land, than American Indian producers in the state. Moreover, the census documents just forty-four Black-owned farms. Disparities in land ownership are just one part of the racialized food system we have inherited from the complex legacies of colonialism in New Mexico.

Building a restorative relationship with the land is essential to a sustainable and equitable future. Feed the Hood’s community garden serves as a hub for programs from cookouts and gardening workshops to school visits from nearby elementary and middle schools. Ordinarily, interns spend hundreds of hours connecting with one another and the outdoors, planting and watering and weeding in their school gardens as well as the community garden and local family farms. They visit with youth involved with other mission-driven organizations, immerse themselves in workshops and local politics, and gather at the 230,000-acre Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge—a thriving desert ecosystem that, once inhabited by the Piro Indians and used as rangelands until the 1960s, is itself an emblem of New Mexico’s wealth in land and colonial legacies in landownership.

In 2020, in the middle of a global pandemic and without the community workshops and cookouts at the garden, Feed the Hood’s work has taken shape in new and creative ways. Led by Javier Mateo Carrasco and Anton Becker-Stumpf, interns were able to continue growing food at schools, farms, and Feed the Hood’s community garden, even though they couldn’t come together for intensive workshops and retreats. They were also able to contribute to amazing projects like a COVID-safety garden video, produced by Together For Brothers, an Albuquerque-based organization uplifting young men of color.

For Becker-Stumpf, 2020 was his first year rising into a formal leadership position as a FoodCorps service member and food justice organizer. As a new leader, Becker-Stumpf felt the pressures of decision making and the stress of wanting to best support already-struggling communities in a year when some seventy thousand New Mexicans lost their jobs. Becker-Stumpf said, “These struggles have also been some of the most important catalysts for me to grow and improve my work ethic and knowledge base around stewarding the land. . . . Every day that I go to the garden, there is a renewed sense of inspiration for me.” He says that growing food and having opportunities to connect with the garden’s neighbors have impacted him greatly, and for many, including him, “the garden is a place of healing and a place for recuperation.” With the guidance of others at SWOP, Becker-Stumpf feels that he has the platform to realize his own potential to create change and to challenge the inequities he sees in his community.

In addition to pivoting programming to meet interns’ needs during the pandemic, Becker-Stumpf has worked with other youth to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to families in need as part of the many mutual aid efforts across the state. To help feed the thousands of families across our state facing unemployment and hunger, Feed the Hood partnered with Cornelio Candelaria Organics (CCO) in the South Valley and a small group of farmers in Polvadera, including Luján at Rancho Entre dos Acequias. These farmers were able to increase their production acreage to grow and give away free produce to families in Albuquerque’s Southeast Heights and communities throughout southwest New Mexico. In the first month of harvest from CCO, more than five hundred pounds of produce were donated.

This took some strategic organizing effort: Luján worked with many others in southwest New Mexico to grow and distribute food to families in need. In the end, they bagged four thousand pounds of beans into twenty-pound bags. Farmers also roasted and distributed nearly three thousand pounds of chile, packed in two hundred sacos (bushels of chile peppers). In total, fifteen thousand pounds of beans, chile, fruits, vegetables, and value-added foods, along with remedios (traditional remedies) prepared by local healers from Child of All Nations and Abuela’s Medicina, were delivered to two hundred families in need over the summer. They also provided masks prepared by SWOP’s masks-with-a-purpose initiative, which aimed to boost a feminist economy and included messages reminding families about the importance of completing their census and voting.

Feed the Hood is also addressing the enormous impact of school closures. When schools were first shut down, the project supported a “bucket brigade”—a distribution of over seventy at-home growing kits for students who wouldn’t be able to spend time in their school gardens. Feed the Hood is also one of many urban agricultural sites around the Southeast Heights collaborating to build a green corridor for growing fresh food. With a pilot project grant from the New Mexico Healthy Soil Program, the garden team implemented soil-restoration practices, transforming the unplanted portion of the garden’s one-acre lot from compacted, barren urban dirt to a field of cover crops and mulched paths. Lastly, Feed the Hood adopted chickens, whose eggs are now being given away to families in the neighborhood. All of this will provide the foundation to transform the community garden into an urban food forest that staff and volunteers will begin to plant in spring 2021. Feed the Hood will also be working with nearby Kirtland Elementary School to establish a dynamic network of parents, staff, and students working together to provide families with access to fresh fruits and vegetables from the school and community gardens.

The unprecedented social, economic, and political crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has shined a light on the deep inequities faced by poor communities of color, conditions that have existed since Feed the Hood’s inception and long before. In New Mexico and nationally, people of color have contracted and died from the virus at higher rates—a fact researchers at UNM have tied to socioeconomic inequalities that influence everything from access to paid sick leave to exposure to pollutants. In this time of shutdowns and social isolation, the health benefits of connecting with green space have become more evident than ever.

Luján says that we should always be “identifying as part of something bigger, which is what we want because we are going to grow as a community [with] everybody that’s involved.” In finding the synergy between people, ideas, and places, we and everyone working at Feed the Hood are attuned to the bigger picture and the longer historical view—namely, that the struggle for food justice in New Mexico goes back centuries.

Another dicho passed on from our mentor Luján is “El que pone, saca”—we bear the fruits of what we put into our community. Our journey has been supported by many, and we realize the power and potential we have to transform the future for a better tomorrow. There is much to see in New Mexico’s local food movement, and 2020 has only revealed a glimpse of its true potential.

swop.net/food-justice

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