Growing Within Walls

As a Food Corps Service member at La Plazita Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I’ve joined a team dedicated to reducing recidivism among incarcerated individuals and building bridges to healthy lifestyles upon reentry to the world outside of confinement.

 La Cultura Cura, translates to “Culture Heals” in English. This mantra guides all of the work done at La Plazita Institute, and has resulted in a collaboration with the Youth Detention Center Education Unit and Youth Services Center. 

Every week, students participate in our Food Justice class and our after school Cooking and Gardening Program. For many of these students, stepping foot in the hoop house is their first time in a garden or seeing where food comes from. Heading out to the garden also breaks up their daily routines within the facility and exposes them to a greener, healing environment. Many are hesitant to even touch dirt, but their discomfort quickly diminishes. Soon they are daring each other to bite into the raw tomatoes and dirt-dusted shallots. We use our harvest in the cooking segment of the class, which often gives students the flavors and spices they don’t experience in the regular meal routine. Seeing the produce travel a two minute walk before using it to top off their homemade spicy black bean burgers demonstrates how gardening can be a relaxing hobby, but also translates into a doable act of self-sufficiency and self-empowerment.

In a facility detaining individuals, almost exclusively of color and low-income backgrounds, it is impossible to talk about food from a perspective the normalizes one definition of health. Beyond talking about nutrition and food systems, addressing the wider lens of food justice offers the opportunity to connect students to culture, family histories, goals, and critical thinking during a time when they are perhaps the most disconnected. 

Naturally, cooking and eating together gives students the opportunity to share stories, draw connections between their experiences and more broad systemic issues, and talk about progress they want to make when they leave the facility. The life cycles of the garden teach us about growth, restoration and nourishment while facing the realities of hunger and restricted access to real food in our communities provide a path conducive to healthy, yet powerful lifestyles and mindsets. 
Liz Sims is a FoodCorps service member at La Plazita Institute and is based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.