Changing a Food System, One Seed at a Time: Part 1

Changing A Food System, One Seed At A Time: Part 1

Mon 10 Dec 2012

Story by Daniel Goleman, Lisa Bennett, and Zenobia Barlow

Transforming a Sense of Possibility Into Systemic Change

It takes a certain kind of person—or, in this case, group of friends—to look at fourteen acres of dry, dusty desert in one of the poorest regions in the country and envision a way for a community to take the food system into its own hands. Meet the three founders of La Semilla Food Center in Anthony, New Mexico, a small rural community near the Mexican border.

Cristina Dominguez-Eshelman is a soft-spoken thirty-four-year-old who didn’t realize how important food was to her until she moved away from her family—or how much she loved growing things until she got her hands in some soil.

Aaron Sharratt is a gentle thirty-two-year-old who, while traveling as an undergraduate in Mexico, became hooked by a deep interest in how a landscape can impact what we eat, what jobs we hold, and even the relationships we have with our families and communities.

Rebecca Wiggins-Reinhard, thirty-one, is a spirited social activist who grew up completely uninterested in her family’s farm—until she discovered that social justice issues were tied to every aspect of the food system.

The three came together several years ago around a modest project focused on engaging young people and their families in creating community gardens in Anthony and nearby towns. In the process, they say, they recognized the potential to inspire changes in eating habits, build awareness of food systems, and unleash the leadership abilities of young people—even in the face of some rather extreme everyday challenges.

“When you begin to think about the issues facing people here—oh, my gosh, the obesity problems, the public health concerns, the security, the border, the border patrol,” says Sharratt. “And yet, there is so much energy, so much potential.”

But how does one transform a sense of possibility into systemic change in food justice, health, and economics? “We thought if we’re going to make an impact, if we’re thinking about a kind of systems change at a big level, there would need to be people who are focused on driving those efforts forward,” says Dominguez-Eshelman.

So the three friends left their jobs and created La Semilla Food Center, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing food justice and economic opportunity to the people of the Paso del Norte region of southern New Mexico. The Center is establishing a farm, offering an education program on how to grow and cook nutritious food that is native to the region, and convening a Youth Food Policy Council that teaches young people how to influence the local food system. Their goal is to reshape what they identify as the “foodshed” that stretches from El Paso, Texas, to Las Cruces, New Mexico.

The challenges they face are enormous. The old well on their land, once used to irrigate cotton fields, is broken. Sections of the wire fence around it were stolen. The Rio Grande is now no more than a big dry riverbed for several months a year. According to the New Mexico Environment Department, waste from the estimated 30,000 dairy cows housed in the many factory farms along the interstate has contaminated the groundwater. Locals also speak of the fine mist of manure that often hangs in the air, a factory-farming byproduct that has been found to cause asthma.

New Mexico, moreover, is one of the most “food-insecure” states in the nation. As recently as 2007, it was ranked as the number one place in the nation where people lacked reliable access to adequate food. One in every seven persons struggles with hunger in the state.

On the other side of the food issue, the state also struggles with rising obesity and diet-related disease. In 2011, the state’s adult obesity rate was 25.6 percent, up from 11.6 just fifteen years before—making it one of seven U.S. states to experience a doubling of obesity in that time. Its diabetes rate as of 2011 was 8.3 percent—up from 5.3 percent. Not coincidentally, many local residents who once made their own nutritious meals no longer cook, let alone grow, their own food. And, as if that were not enough for the young leaders trying to change all this, the three leaders of La Semilla are not even farmers.

“Do you think we’re crazy?” asks Dominguez-Eshelman. “We ask ourselves if we’re crazy sometimes.”

Crazy or not, they are attracting significant support for their efforts. In 2011, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation awarded La Semilla a three-year grant of $432,680. Kent Halla, owner of Sierra Vista Growers, the largest nursery in the Southwest, gave them fourteen acres of land to farm. And Olga Pedroza, a prominent city councilwoman, is just one of the community leaders who routinely champion their cause. The reasons are threefold: the critical needs they have identified, the solutions they are proposing—and the emotional, social, and ecological intelligence they are bringing to the effort.

Part 2: In tomorrow's installment of this five-part series, the authors of Ecoliterate take a look at what La Semilla is up against—an industrialized food system with many unintended consequences.

About the authors: In the new book, Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence, psychologist Daniel Goleman and the Center for Ecoliteracy's Lisa Bennett and Zenobia Barlow profile inspiring educators, activists, and students who embody this new integration of intelligences as they creatively address food, water, and energy issues. This is a story about a group of young adults in New Mexico who set out to change the way people in their community nourish themselves.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint. From Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman, Lisa Bennett, and Zenobia Barlow. Copyright © 2012 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Photo: Lisa Bennett


More News