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Strengthening the links in the food chain

From left, Bryan Romero, from Springer, Sebastian Aguiera and Joseph Salazar, from Santa Fe, work with other YouthWorks staff Tuesday to prepare meals for about 160 people at the El Rancho de Las Golondrinas commercial kitchen. The work is part of an effort to alleviate hunger in a state that routinely ranks near the bottom in food stability. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Despite New Mexico’s reputation for famous pecans, chiles and beef, the state routinely ranks near the bottom of food stability rankings, as most of that food never makes it into the hands of New Mexico residents.

With that in mind, a collection of small-scale farmers, food policy experts and state officials met virtually last week to discuss how to make New Mexico’s food system more sustainable, more locally driven and, ultimately, more equitable.

“Food is the cornerstone of all cultures,” said Krysten Aguilar, co-executive director of La Semilla Food Center, during a panel presentation. “It’s what we eat, how we eat it, where it comes from, that connects us.”

Bryan Romero, from Springer, with YouthWorks, makes biscuits for about 160 people Tuesday at the El Rancho de Las Golondrinas kitchen outside Santa Fe.

The event, titled “Reimagining the New Mexico Food Economy,” drew more than 350 attendees to learn about and connect over work being done across the state. Presenters included leaders from New Mexico Harvest, which runs a statewide community supported agriculture enterprise; Barelas Community Coalition, which has opened a food distribution market and food truck lot in Albuquerque, and Santa Fe YouthWorks, a youth vocational program that’s helped launch two new farms in the area and runs a culinary training program. Eric Renz-Whitmore, director of ESHIP Communities at Forward Cities, one of the event sponsors, said one goal was to bring together entrepreneurs and other experts who work in different parts of the state or food ecosystem.

Jackie Gibbs of YouthWorks chops zucchini to make calabacitas

“We’re a big state with a relatively small population,” Renz-Whitmore said.

Topics ranged from work being done by local farms, to state-level initiatives like the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which would utilize federal funding to get healthy food into underserved communities more effectively.

Eric Renz-Whitmore

Speakers at the event agreed that reforming New Mexico’s food economy has a chance to help reverse some of the longstanding social and economic challenges that the state faces.

“Our state has had absolutely dire outcomes for far too long,” Aguilar said.

What’s wrong?

New Mexico has long struggled with residents going unfed. Just three states, Mississippi, Louisiana and West Virginia, had higher rates of food insecurity from 2017 to 2019, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report released earlier this year. One in four New Mexico children struggles with hunger, according to Feeding America.

In addition to poverty, one issue is the way industrial food production operates in the United States.

Jeff Witte

State Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte said New Mexico has plenty of small farmers, but very little of their produce remains in New Mexico. Instead, it is shipped to production facilities in other states, which is then sold to stores.

Witte cited a study from New Mexico State University showing that between 95% and 97% of food produced in New Mexico is exported.

“New Mexico has long been a food production state. It’s been a state where we produce great crops, great livestock, great dairy products,” Witte said during the event. “And typically, with the exception of dairy, we ship it all out of state.”

Food then has to be reimported to sell to New Mexico consumers. New Mexico consumers spend about $6.5 billion each year buying food sourced outside of the state, while cash income for New Mexico farmers stays flat, according to the New Mexico Farm & Food Economy report published earlier this year.

Witte said New Mexico currently lacks the ability to process food like livestock and pecans in order to keep the food in-state.

“We just don’t have the processing capacity anywhere in the state,” he said.

Food trucks sell their products Wednesday at the lot next to La Esquinita Market in Downtown Albuquerque. The market was spearheaded by the Barelas Community Coalition.

What can change?

Because of that, bringing agricultural processors to New Mexico has been a priority for the state Economic Development Department. State Economic Development Secretary Alicia Keyes said during the event that the state has used funding through the Local Economic Development Act to attract livestock processors, including a first-of-its-kind high-pressure processing facility in Albuquerque announced last month by New Mexico Fresh Foods.

Jaime Spilca, right, and her brother Craig Foster work at the Desert Sky food truck by La Esquinita Market Wednesday in Downtown Albuquerque.

“By building up and developing a healthy network of resources and support, we can use this time of uncertainty as an opportunity to grow and strengthen our economy,” Keyes said.

Aguilar said the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which she said will be introduced during New Mexico’s 2021 legislative session, would also bridge some of the gaps in the state’s food supply chain, particularly in poor and rural communities.

Alicia Keyes

The federally funded program, which operates in about a dozen states and regions, provides grants and loans to attract and develop grocery stores, food stands and other fresh food providers to underserved parts of the state.

While the program utilizes up to $2 million in federal funds, Aguilar said it could be tailored to support local farms and farmers, noting that New Mexico is more rural than other places that have implemented the program.

Aguilar said she’d like to incorporate an advisory committee with a focus on helping historically marginalized communities of color.

“We really want to focus on not leaving people out, but bringing more people in,” she said.

Aguilar said she was confident the initiative, which comes with a $200,000 ask from the state, would pass in the upcoming session in some form.

Currently, Witte said just 6% of New Mexico food producers sell directly to New Mexico consumers. However, several New Mexico farmers and other organizations are working to find creative solutions.

A pair of New Mexico Harvest workers package food to deliver to members. New Mexico Harvest uses a community supported agriculture model to deliver food from more than three dozen farms and other organizations to members across Central and Northern New Mexico.

One such organization is New Mexico Harvest, which uses a community supported agriculture – or CSA – model to provide locally sourced produce, meat and other food from 37 farms and other partners around the state to a list of around 450 members.

Thomas Swendson

President Thomas Swendson said the group, which had primarily operated in Santa Fe, rebranded and expanded to other parts of Central New Mexico, from Albuquerque to Los Alamos.

A New Mexico Harvest worker sorts through spices and produce at the organization’s distribution facility. (Courtesy of New Mexico Harvest)

Swendson said having a large number of farmers allows New Mexico Harvest to tailor its weekly offerings to individual members based on dietary restrictions and other personal choices, while still letting farmers sell their entire crop.

“We’ve built in a lot of flexibility to the traditional CSA model,” Swendson said.

Thomas Swendson president of New Mexico Harvest, sorts pumpkins and other at the organization’s distribution facility. (Courtesy of New Mexico Harvest)

More recently, New Mexico Harvest partnered with Barelas Community Coalition to develop La Esquinita, a distribution facility in Albuquerque at the corner of Fourth Street and Coal Avenue SW.

The facility houses a food cart lot where visitors can try other local products while picking up CSA products from New Mexico Harvest and other local distributors.

Cristina Rogers, executive director of the Barelas Community Coalition, said during the event that the facility represents a step toward revisiting New Mexico’s history of food production in a more empowering way.

“When we talk about reimagining the food economy, what we’re really talking about is reimagining New Mexico,” Rogers said.

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