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Harvesting Hope: Charity works on turning a food bounty into a community boon

Trista Teeter, left, and Erin Garrison, right, founders of Food is Free Albuquerque, with former University of New Mexico football player Jorge Enriquez. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Erin Garrison and Trista Teeter do the heavy lifting.

The pair are the driving force behind Food is Free Albuquerque (FIFABQ), a charity that focuses on the growing and sharing of food.

Some problems that they solve are in the realm of what to do with an abundance of apples, a bounty of blueberries, a plethora of plums.

Odds are, Garrison and Teeter have the answer.

“We were both canning and saw trees going unused,” Garrison said. “We put out a Craigslist ad for extra fruit, and people responded. We harvested 200 pounds from that first couple of trees – more than we needed.”

Nurturing a community

Recognizing an opportunity, Garrison and Teeter reached out to Food is Free, based in Austin, Texas.

They asked permission to use the name, and Food is Free Albuquerque was born in 2014.

“We never canned again,” Garrison said.

But they did reach out to the community again, this time asking on behalf of others.

“We knew there was an issue with hunger in New Mexico,” Teeter said.

Today, one of Food is Free Albuquerque’s main objectives is to help harvest “forgotten food,” the fruit and veggies left in the fields after the growers have taken all they want and need. Home gardeners, family orchards and small farms can contact FIFABQ and the organization will glean the designated trees or fields.

Harvest time is a monthslong event for FIFABQ. Mulberries will be ready for harvest in May, and the harvesting will continue through October, with pumpkins, potatoes and apples, and anything you can grow in between.

Although 30 days’ notice is preferable, a month before the harvest is ready, they have harvested with 24 hours’ notice. And Garrison and Teeter aren’t doing it alone. They have a core set of volunteers of all ages, including their own children.

“The kids of Food is Free are some really inspiring human beings,” Garrison said.

The organization collected and redistributed over 14,000 pounds of food to kitchens and shelters in 2019. Even the bruised and smashed produce finds its way to another purpose: to home canners and to farmers for animal feed, respectively. From harvest to final destination, Garrison said, the goal is to get the produce plugged back into the community.

“Food is Free believes fresh food is a human right,” Garrison said. “Everyone deserves access to fresh food.”

Gardening goals

Volunteers with Food is Free Albuquerque and Used Equipment Sales work on the construction of Jorge Enriquez’s garden.

Harvesting isn’t Food is Free Albuquerque’s only aim.

Another function of the organization is helping empower people to grow their own food.

Former University of New Mexico football player Jorge Enriquez was close to graduation in 2006 when he experienced episodes in which one side of his body would become numb. He was 23 years old when he got a diagnosis: He had multiple sclerosis, a disease that damages the myelin in the central nervous system.

Six years ago, Enriquez took up gardening. But a few years later, his disease threw him for another loop and progressed to the point that he had trouble accessing his plants.

Enriquez – who uses a wheelchair – credits his family for connecting him to Food is Free Albuquerque and nominating him for an accessible garden.

March was the dreaming stage, he said, but the work began in April.

“(They) built me a paradise of a garden,” Enriquez said.

“(It was a) really inspiring thing to work on, really fun to dreamscape the whole plan and watch it come to fruition,” Garrison said.

“I had the trailblazer garden,” Enriquez said, describing his garden, the first one FIFABQ built.

That first garden was sponsored by a local business, Used Equipment Sales. Together with FIFABQ, volunteers and family members, they installed raised garden beds, an increased paver path, a compost tumbler and a rain barrel.

“A lot of pavers,” Enriquez said. “Having that extra 12 inches (along the original paver path) is huge … a godsend.”

Raised garden beds constructed by Food is Free Albuquerque for Jorge Enriquez.

Enriquez is now growing many vegetables, including squash, carrots, lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes and his favorite, zucchini.

“I don’t have that big of a harvest yet,” Enriquez said. “I give to my neighbors that I grew up with for the past 30 years. I baked my neighbors bread with things from my garden.”

Teeter said, “It inspired them to start their own (gardens).”

“One apple or 1,000, sharing is what’s important, sharing with neighbors,” Garrison said. “We’re all neighbors.”

FIFABQ hopes to keep building dreams like Enriquez’s.

Building the future

In 2020, the organization plans to build four more gardens for people who are prevented from gardening due to physical or other limitations. And they are also looking for local businesses that want to help sponsor these gardens. Interested businesses can contact FIFABQ at info@fifabq.org.

“(What) started as giving away food at random has grown,” Garrison said.

When gardens start bursting back into life around Albuquerque in the spring, Food is Free Albuquerque will be ready. You might see them driving down the street in a car stuffed full of corn, chassis close to scraping the road, or in a front yard, building and creating dream gardens like Enriquez’s, for others who just need a helping hand.

As for Garrison and Teeter’s personal garden goals, they say their talents lie elsewhere.

“We don’t talk about the inside plants,” Garrison quips.

The two prefer to focus on the growing and nurturing of food and community.

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