Changing a Food System, One Seed at a Time: Part 3

Changing A Food System, One Seed At A Time: Part 3

Wed 12 Dec 2012

Story by Daniel Goleman, Lisa Bennett, and Zenobia Barlow

Read part 2 here.

From Not Knowing to Knowing

A thirty-minute drive north from El Paso, Texas, and south from Las Cruces, New Mexico, the town of Anthony is divided across two state lines.

On the New Mexico side, Anthony has a population of nearly 8,000—with some 97 percent of those who live in “colonia communities” earning less than $5,000 a year, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Many work at seasonal jobs such as harvesting pecans that are exported to China, or they take odd jobs where they can get them. On the Texas side, Anthony has fewer than 4,000 people and is home to a federal correctional institution; several food stores, such as Big 8 and Circle K Drive-In; and all the usual fast-food restaurants: McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Carl’s Jr., and Little Caesars Pizza.

Xavier Hernandez, a high school student from Anthony, remembers when no fast-food restaurants existed in his community. But as they became ubiquitous, many people became accustomed to eating fast food without a second thought about nutrition. “I didn’t know much about food or nothing,” says Christopher Garcia, a young man meeting with friends in Anthony’s community garden. “I’d eat fast food or whatever. You know, I’d just go out and eat.” His sister, Priscilla, who holds a baby in her arms, agrees: “I didn’t know about growing. I didn’t even know there was organic food.”

But when they heard about a program that would pay them to work in a garden and learn about healthy food, they signed up—just for the chance to make some money. What they didn’t expect was that the experience would turn their lives around.

“I learned how to have a relationship with my food and be more mindful about everything I do,” says Priscilla Garcia. “I learned that where we get our food is so important, and how everything is so connected, and just how food itself nurtures your body and how we nurture it.” With tears in her eyes, she adds, “Just the whole manifestation of my life, I believe, happened here.”

While working at Colonias Development Council, which funded the community gardens project with support from a National Park Service grant, Dominguez-Eshelman, Sharratt, and Wiggins-Reinhard offered classes; engaged young people in the Youth Food Policy Council; took them to events; and connected them with growers and food activists—efforts they continue now through La Semilla. In the process, they work hard to get to know the participants individually, believing that relationships are key to any authentic learning experience.

They also take care to be nonjudgmental. For example, they tell participants in their programs, “Do not go home and tell your parents that we just said that everything you buy is wrong, and you should be buying organic,” explains Dominguez-Eshelman. “But we do say you have a right to know that there are differences in food. And if you want that access [to healthy food], you have a right to ask why you don’t have it, and how can we work towards it.”

Manuel Garcia, brother of Priscilla and Christopher, is planning to also join in the work of La Semilla. As he has become more aware of the importance of eating healthy food, he says he has become increasingly, passionately committed to educating others. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that minorities, in particular poor minorities, have higher rates of diabetes and heart disease,” he says. “And I really want to start educating people on the negative health effects that a lot of the food they sell us has on our lives—not only on our lives, but also on our families, on our communities.”

One discovery that particularly influenced him followed some research into the chemicals that go into fast foods. He found, for example, that American McDonald’s French fries and chicken nuggets are cooked in oil that contains dimethylpolysiloxane, a form of silicone that prevents hot oil from foaming. “It is the main component of Silly Putty. It’s basically like a rubber component. It’s also used in caulk that plumbers use to make the pipes watertight and in all sorts of medical equipment. So I started to think, why is this in my food?

These are the kinds of stories that convince the leaders of La Semilla of the potential for transforming individual and community food practices through education. “Just learning about that bigger picture and seeing how connected they are to it—and that they still have power, by the choices that they make or don’t make in terms of what food they buy. All of us have the power to make changes even at that small level,” says Dominguez-Eshelman.

There is also a deep sense of belonging—to the families, to communities, to nature, to life—that comes from reengaging in food at the community level, says Sharratt. “Unless you’re involved in the food system or involved in growing, everybody becomes so disconnected from where our food comes from, what it means for our bodies. Now you go into a grocery store and there’s no connection whatsoever. It’s all covered in plastic.”

La Semilla is trying to help people rediscover those connections by showing them where food actually comes from, he says, and helping them recognize the impact of food—for better or worse—on people’s physical and emotional lives.

Part 4: In tomorrow's installment of this five-part series, the authors of Ecoliterate explore just what it is about the three founders that is making the (seemingly) impossible possible.

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 Credit: ©Tyler/Center for Ecoliteracy


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