Let’s Bring Justice to the Table

By Casey Coty, FoodCorps Service Member at SouthWest Organizing Project

Are your students eating some beautiful rainbow carrots after defiantly claiming that they don’t like carrots? Are you getting reluctant young folks to eat their greens by sneaking them into a delicious smoothie? That’s awesome!

Whether coming from the school garden the students planted themselves or from a local grower, how do we work with this new found enthusiasm and momentum to increase the flow of fresh, healthy, culturally appropriate foods into our schools and other institutions in an equitable way that honors and respects the workers, land, water, and systems of production and distribution that make up our respective communities and ecosystems?

How can we organize around food and continue to grow relationships to work towards a resurgence of genuine, sustainable, sovereign communities that resist patterns of neoliberal commodification and the systemic injustices continuing to feed off of communities of culture, people of color, women and poor working class folks.  

What kind of awareness can we grow within the gardens and classrooms

to help empower our youth

to move from trying and liking new veggies

to organizing and advocating for more just food systems?

Merely presenting so called new methods and situations

with a grinning green washed face

 does little more than reinforce the existing structures

of exploitation and deceit.

There are many examples of communities successfully asserting themselves

and using their traditional knowledge and lived experiences

to grow international solidarity

in a grassroots food justice movement.

During the first week of January this year, the Southwest Organizing Project and University Sin Fronteras hosted a dinner and discussion with a representative from the National Education Collective of the Movimento Trabalhador Sem Terra (MST). The Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST), one of the largest social movements in Latin America, is internationally famous for its success occupying large unproductive land estates and pressuring the government to redistribute this land to over 1 million landless farmers. The discussion included information about the National Education Collective of the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement’s work in public schools that are currently functioning with MST land occupations.

These schools draw on diverse educational theories to develop a set of pedagogical practices for schools that include fostering collective forms of work and participation in political struggle, engaging in contentious actions to support their educational ideas, facilitating community discussions, organizing teacher trainings, and writing curricula with state actors.

In addition to learning about and trying new foods, our students should be given the opportunity to develop a critical understanding of how society functions and how historic injustices continue to shape current structures, including food systems. This should also include learning about different forms of organization, education models, and struggles, like the MST and others, so that they can become empowered to assert their own ideas and solutions in discussions about issues directly affecting them, their families and communities.

That can start with the food they have access to at the school and in their communities and extend well beyond into public policies, including curriculum that reflects their histories, struggles, and visions for a just future. Helping our students develop a critical analysis and vocabulary on historical injustices and current forms of structural racism as they relate to food is central to discussions in the spaces I work in.

One of those spaces is the 21st Century Extended Day Learning Apprenticeship Program at Van Buren Middle School. An 8th grader in the apprenticeship program last year went on to be part of the Southwest Organizing Project’s Youth Group as a summer intern through the Youth Employment Summer Institute, a program that places young people ages 14-24 with local organizations that provide them with the tools they need for developing skills in community organizing.

During the program SWOP’s Food Justice team took some of the participants on a three day trip entitled Reconnecting with our Roots. We visited one of our most beloved mentors’ and his neighbor’s farms that grow a variety of produce including our favorite local chile. It was also a time to get together and share good food, including the first round of chile fresh from the farm, and hear stories about history,culture and food from our mentor.

For the past couple of years we have taken students to the New Mexico Legislative session to support Food and Farms Day to highlight legislative proposals that support local growers and the importance of healthy school lunches. Wednesday, February 3rd we will once again be taking students to the Roundhouse to support Food and Farms Day and to learn about the political process.

The opportunity to talk to their representatives, like the photo above with Wilson students and State House Representative Sheryl Williams Stapleton, is critical to shaping students’ understanding of the complex systems that they are a part of.

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.

El Agua No Se Vende, El Agua Se Defiende

By Casey Coty, FoodCorps Service Member with the SouthWest Organizing Project

“El quien pone, saca” is a dicho, or proverb here in New Mexico with many layers- but simply put means “what you put in, you take out”.

The dismal statistics regarding childhood well being and lack of access to healthy, culturally relevant foods in New Mexico are the direct result of multiple waves of intentional policies and practices of land removal, colonization, manipulation and deceit.

It is because of this, what has been’ put into’ our lands and watersheds, that we find value and strength in coming together to plant seeds in community and school gardens, reconnecting with the land and each other and beginning to grow healthy communities once again.

It is with the understanding of this history of colonization that attempts to impose policies and other efforts, however well intentioned, aimed at addressing these injustices are understandably met with some skepticism.

In terms of local procurement for school lunches, questions such as: “What steps are being taken/need to be taken to ensure that healthy foods are culturally relevant and valuable?”, and “How can schools purchasing locally grown, traditional, healthy foods start to address these issues?”, need to be asked.

There are also, unfortunately, local development proposals that illustrate the ongoing blatant disregard for land, water, and communities. One such proposal intended for Albuquerque’s Westside would cost taxpayers of the county millions to implement, and would suck up and divert precious groundwater away from nourishing farmers and their crops that could boost local sustainable development.

With the above disregard for water and natural resources, I would also suggest that the Healthy Kids, Healthy Economies legislation, produce of the month programs and other initiatives aimed at getting healthier locally produced foods into school meal programs while simultaneously boosting local economy, may be putting the cart before the horse so to speak. Fostering the relationship between our communities and the land may be the first step towards a more just food system.

“School meals have to be an economic driver to building better food systems. There’s an opportunity to change the way people eat, but also the ways we feed people. Food sovereignty means building, reactivating, and revitalizing local and regional food sheds to meet the needs of our communities. Schools are on the front lines of fighting childhood hunger and childhood obesity. More investment in local healthy foods going to our schools is needed. We can’t keep shipping our tomatoes and strawberries in from drought stricken California or from other countries.” –Rodrigo Rodriguez, Southwest Organizing Project

We just had our annual opening day at Project Feed the Hood’s International Community Garden. We had folks from all around our community including some of the students and families we work with, come out to work, eat, and celebrate community reconnection with the land and each other. School garden spaces and after school programs provide an opportunity to reassert intergenerational experiential learning to begin to heal the deep wounds from colonization, and loosen the stranglehold of compulsory education.

It is through these spaces that we can share the silenced stories of genocide, colonization, land removal, and institutionalized racism with our youth. We can then begin to shape strategies to confront these ongoing injustices from within a renewed sense of strength and community.