Supporting Community Values

By Casey Coty, FoodCorps Service Member with SouthWest Organizing Project 

In my previous post I referred to a particular development proposal up on the mesa just to the west of Albuquerque from out of state interests to illustrate how this whole colonial/settler state mentality is still very much alive and continues to prey upon the natural resources of our lands, water, and communities.

Here’s a brief description of a couple spaces we are helping to facilitate that will hopefully demonstrate some possibilities for building and strengthening our communities based on real community values and needs.

The Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP)’s food justice campaign, Project Feed the Hood (PFTH), helps to facilitate Student Health Advisory Councils (SHAC) at two middle schools (Van Buren and Wilson) in Albuquerque Public Schools (APS). The SHAC’s are made up of parents, students, community members, and school staff working together to improve the health of all students and families by coordinating efforts, maintaining school gardens, building awareness, and through direct action.

Our primary goal is to develop leadership skills within these cohorts and strengthen their ability to influence the political process concerning school foods and school wellness policies, at the APS district level and at the New Mexico State Legislature. New Mexico is currently ranked number 1 in childhood hunger, 1 in 3 of our children suffers from hunger and 1 in 5 adults.

Over 66% of students in New Mexico qualify for free and reduced lunches through the Free and Reduced Lunch Program. Just over half of Albuquerque Public School’s 89,000 students qualify including 85% of students at Van Buren Middle School and 81% of students at Wilson Middle School. Many of these students are consuming more than half of their daily calories at school, which means that at least one of their primary meals is a school meal.

Studies prove that students who have enough to eat perform better in school, healthier students also perform better. Students and parent voices are traditionally marginalized in public policy debates; by empowering these community voices to insert themselves into the process we can craft policies that directly address the needs of the community and build on sustainable, long term, culturally appropriate solutions.

Project Feed the Hood has worked closely with students, teachers, parents, and other school staff to maintain school gardens at five APS schools this year. With SHAC at Wilson and Van Buren middle schools we were able to host very fruitful visioning sessions with students and school staff about school food, food justice issues, and the entire education system itself. We have also hosted workshops and discussions with parents about school gardens, school food, community organizing and food justice.

This summer we are hosting three SHAC visioning sessions at PFTH’s International District Community Garden to develop the community leadership skills of students and families to discuss how their values and ambitions can drive the work they chose to do. We know that schools across the district have an already established state mandated council and our goal is to help create a space where we can all develop shared, comprehensive resources like basic base building, health education initiatives, workshops on curriculum design, and how we can shape our education system to better reflect the realities of our families and communities.

This year we facilitated a job mentorship program (JMP) at West Mesa HS with four students successfully completing the program. The JMP is a project of the Albuquerque Business Education Compact and operated by the City of Albuquerque and the Department of Family and Community Services designed to offer assistance and encouragement to high school students to stay in school and graduate.

Each of the students had to complete 30 hours of community service, 30 hours of work in the garden at $5/hour, and 30 hours of building job searching skills. One of the students has started a job at the zoo this month as a result of successful completion of the program.

West Mesa HS was also awarded a $5,000 grant from Lowe’s Toolbox for Education and we will be continuing to work with students, staff & faculty, and families over the summer to maintain and expand the garden spaces, host BBQ’s and potlucks, and develop a community advocacy group.

At the 2015 New Mexico Legislative Session an additional $30,000 was given to the New Mexico Department of Agriculture (NMDA). Schools in Albuquerque can apply for these funds if they are involved with farmers who are in training programs, our sister organization Grow the Future is one of these farms. These funds will add to $85,000 recurring that the NMDA administers for ‘New Mexico Grown Produce for School Meals’ fund. Between the two agencies New Mexico farmers will benefit from the total of $479,300.

An additional $400,000 was appropriated to the New Mexico Farmer’s Market Association for their ‘Double Up Food Bucks’ program, which allows recipients of SNAP to receive $2 for $1 to spend at local farmers markets.

These incremental policy victories add up to almost a million dollars in support for getting healthy foods into our most vulnerable communities. They are a direct result of the awareness built and actions taken by members of Project Feed the Hood and our partners on the New Mexico Food and Agriculture Policy Council.

This summer we are also proud to be a host site with the Youth Employment Summer Institute as one of 8 organizations providing employment to 75 young folks to build their skills in community organizing. Project Feed the Hood has three youth interns who will be helping to build relationships, facilitate summer school programming, be an integral part in SHAC planning strategy and community visioning sessions, plan a food justice tour, and maintain school and community garden spaces throughout the summer.

The relationships these young people help create and develop will make all the difference between these policies being implemented and nourished or just being another feel good thing on record but not really enacted and enforced. It’s also a good time to see what we want to ask the new APS school board to do to support the collaborative efforts aimed at addressing injustice, inequity, healthy locally sourced school meals, and an education system that truly serves the needs of our families and communities.


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