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.

Empowering Youth to Make Healthy Food Choices

Choice changes lives, and we control our choices.

This statement was the theme of last week’s youth activities at the Bernalillo County Juvenile Detention and Youth Services Center, one of my FoodCorps school sites. The entire week was filled with a diverse variety of workshops which were recorded as part of an institutional effort to highlight student voices and ideas for a new website video.

Since the end of October, youth at the Detention Center have gained exposure to gardening and nutrition education through my after school garden program held in the facility’s hoop house. Furthermore, since the beginning of this year, kitchen staff have been incorporating into student meals fresh produce from one of the farm plots operated in the South Valley of Albuquerque by my FoodCorps service site, La Plazita Institute. For the past several weeks, Detention Center youth, most of whom are from the South Valley, have been able to enjoy asparagus from this farm in their meals. This has been the first exposure to asparagus for many of the youth, but it has been a huge hit. Therefore, when I had the opportunity to design my own workshop relating to food and choice, I chose to highlight this plant.

During the workshop, the ten females who were recommended by their teachers to participate were able to prepare a roasted asparagus dish and a fresh asparagus salad. Both recipes incorporated familiar Southwestern and Mexican ingredients, something that I emphasize in my choice of recipes for cooking lessons. While we waited for the food to cook, the students, teachers, staff, and I sat down to have a discussion about the important connection between food and choice. I asked the students what choices they have made with the foods they eat. One response, which was supported by several of the other girls, was, “Sometimes, I have to choose not to eat at Blake’s [Lotaburger] or McDonald’s and eat something healthy.” This is certainly a difficult choice to make given that fast food restaurants like these are so prevalent in their neighborhoods and offer inexpensive meal options for the youth and their families. I brought up that we also have the choice to grow our own food. A La Plazita staff member and his family chose to donate the land on which the organization now grows its asparagus.

However, I assured the entire group that you do not need acres of land or a “green thumb” to grow food. All you need is seeds, soil, sunlight, and love.

Our food choices are some of the most powerful choices that we have; they can determine our long-term health, and more broadly, influence the overall health of our communities. Therefore, I am hoping that with the knowledge about gardening and nutrition that Detention Center youth have gained both in this single workshop as well as in our other lessons, some of the students will choose to make healthier food choices for positive change in their lives.

Planting the Seeds of Service and Community

By Rachel Pretlow, FoodCorps Service Member with La Plazita Institute 

“What does service mean to you?”

Nearly 350 Albuquerque Public Schools elementary and middle school students were able to begin to discover their answer to that question during the Cesar Chavez Day of Service at the Sanchez Farm Open Space last Friday. These students, along with dozens of volunteers, participated in a community service day in honor of the life and work of Cesar Chavez, the famed Chicano farm workers’ rights activist. The students, who hailed from 6 schools throughout the city, participated in activities ranging from traditional Mexican curanderismo to chicken farming.

I had the pleasure of leading a station at the garden plot in the Open Space maintained by La Plazita Institute, my FoodCorps service site. I originally had the grandiose idea of painting and constructing hubcap flowers to beautify/obscure the chain-link fence around the garden space. However, I recalled a moment from earlier in my FoodCorps service term when I tried using buckets of paint in a garden club session with elementary schoolers. It ended horribly. I settled on planting a selection of seeds for the Spring garden and labeling stones with the name and illustrated picture of each crop we will be planting throughout the next few months with the assistance of student and staff volunteers from the University of New Mexico.

Before the students arrived to my station on the Day of Service, they were able to take part in a traditional Lakota blessing of the four directions led by the Executive Director of La Plazita. For most of the kids, this was a new way of appreciating the natural environment. When the first wave of students arrived, I divided them into two groups for each of the activities. I took my students to plant flowers and left the others with UNM volunteers to paint and label the stones. Of course, after two minutes, the kids in the painting group said that they were done. We all learned the importance of being prepared with backpocket activities with that group; the Wind Blows for Me saved us. The students who participated in the planting activity with me were able to learn about the importance of plant diversity and pollinators in the garden. They were also able to learn a little about native seeds and plants of this region as we planted native amaranth and sage throughout the garden.

At the end of the afternoon, the students were asked to reflect on what they learned through their service.

Some of them said that they learned how to plant a seed for the first time.

Many of the students will likely forget about this day.

But some of them may never forget about the first time they planted a seed in service to their community.

 So I pose the same question now: “What does service mean to you?”