Healthy Foods = Healthy Communities
Written by Charlotte Tallman • Photography by Rachel Courtney
The numbers are shocking. Across the United States, 29.7 million Americans live in food deserts, according to the US Department of Agriculture—and yes, that’s as bad as it sounds. They don’t have access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful, whole foods due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers. In certain areas of Doña Ana County, that fact hits especially close to home.
Fortunately, a new coalition of concerned Las Crucens is stepping up to make a difference. With a Voices for Healthy Kids Grant, funded by the American Heart Association and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, La Semilla Food Center started the Healthy Foods, Healthy Communities Coalition in October 2016 with a mission to provide local communities access to healthy foods.
“La Semilla, and other partners through the Mesilla Valley Food Policy Council, hosted many community meetings over the past two years,” says Krysten Aguilar, director of programs and policy at La Semilla. “The group is always looking for ways to get healthy food access to communities who don’t have it. Hearing stories of how difficult it is to get to grocery stores due to cost, time, and transportation issues spurred us to start the coalition. Our local people have highlighted the need for this advocacy campaign.”
A number of other individuals and organizations have recognized the issue and stepped up to join La Semilla in their efforts including New Mexico State University, Doña Ana County Extension, New Mexico Department of Health, Casa de Peregrinos, Roadrunner Food Bank, and the Institute for Heathy Living.
The goal of the coalition is to make sure healthy food is available to everyone, everywhere—and that’s much more difficult than it may sound. They’re starting with a focus on the Healthy Food Funding Initiative (HFFI), a new project that creates programs that provide effective, viable, and economically sustainable policy-based solutions to bringing affordable, healthy food and jobs into communities.
“HFFI programs provide the necessary support to local grocers and entrepreneurs to open, expand, and improve farmers’ markets, farm stands, grocery stores, corner stores, and other food outlets in underserved areas,” says Rachel Courtney, coalition member and marketing specialist for the campaign.
HFFI programs benefit the economy by allowing local farmers’ markets and grocery stores to remain the cornerstones of a community. They also create jobs by allowing new businesses to employ people from the communities they serve, expand markets for local farmers, and have the potential to lower healthcare costs in the long run.
La Semilla and the Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce partnered together and received a three-year, $500,000 grant from the USDA to support local food system development and get better locally grown food into the community.
“Through this grant, we will be able to help individuals and small businesses get the technical support they need, including marketing promotion and business planning to support their new ventures,” Krysten says. “This is a necessary and important complement to the funds. HFFI provides the financial support through low interest and forgivable loans and the Green Chamber and La Semilla provide the business support.”
In the next 10 years, expect community-wide changes to arise directly from the Healthy Food, Healthy Communities Coalition. By establishing funds, they aim to improve health by increasing access to healthy foods and increase economic health by helping farmers in Doña Ana County get access to loans and business training. These farmers can be first-time farmers or people who have already started a farm and would like to grow, but don’t have the finances to do it. The outcome: healthier, more fruitful communities at every level.
Teacher Capstone Event
On Saturday, April 29, the Edible Ed program is hosting their big Teacher Capstone Event at the Downtown Plaza during the Farmers’ and Crafts Market. The event will showcase their projects and all the great work teachers have done through the year with garden and cooking education in their classrooms.
One example of innovation when it comes to healthy food access: La Semilla’s new food truck, offering the freshest local fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs, and other groceries. The Farm Fresh Mobile Market, an old retrofitted school bus, stops in Las Cruces, Anthony, Chaparral, and Vado each week. The mobile market accepts WIC, SNAP, double up food bucks, and debit, credit, and cash. That type of thinking and innovation is making a difference in the lives and thinking of those who might not have ever realized they could see a change.
“I live in Anthony, New Mexico, a town with 9,293 people living here. We do not have a grocery store in our town, and the closest grocery store is three miles away in neighboring Anthony, Texas,” says Manuel Garcia. “Because of this food desert in my home, I must travel 25 miles to get to the closest grocery store in New Mexico, or drive three miles into Texas and spend my money in another state, feeding their local economy. Me, my family, and thousands of families have been doing this for years and years, feeding another city’s economy and neglecting our own city.”