Dolores E. Roybal

Doña Ana County is a large, rural county with widespread communities. Many residents have difficulty getting to a full-service grocery store that sells fresh, affordable food. Even in the city of Las Cruces, a poor neighborhood near the heart of downtown doesn’t have a grocery store within a mile of residents’ homes. Seniors often rely on relatives for rides and get to a store infrequently, making it challenging to buy produce, which can spoil. To get to the closest store, one man in his late 70s carries a basket and walks two miles round-trip, sometimes in 100-degree temperatures.

This scenario isn’t unique in New Mexico, where many of our communities are far-flung. But here on the southern border of New Mexico, promising changes are happening. We could all learn from how La Semilla Food Center is bringing together residents, policymakers, public officials and other nonprofits to find sustainable solutions to the common problem of poverty and isolation.

La Semilla is working with residents and local organizations to make it easier for people to buy healthy food when they want it. With a grant from the Con Alma Health Foundation, the center is focusing on broad policy changes and specific proposals for two neighborhoods: the historic, high-poverty district of Mesquite near downtown and Vado-Del Cerro, a village 15 miles south of Las Cruces, where the closest grocer is a mini-mart about two miles away.

Con Alma’s support for La Semilla’s vision and its ability to partner with others is a natural fit for the state’s largest private foundation dedicated solely to health. Con Alma is distributing $500,000 this year to help nonprofits work toward health equity in which everyone has an equal chance at being healthy, regardless of a person’s zip code, race or income.

“Access to healthy food is an issue of equity and social justice. La Semilla is a model and at the forefront of making sure that everyone in Doña Ana County has an equal chance of obtaining fresh good food that is affordable,” said Denise Gonzales, Con Alma’s program director, who oversees grants. “Access to healthy food is the first step in preventative health care; both the health-care system and underserved communities will benefit from the reduction of diet-related disease resulting from healthy food access.”

La Semilla’s staff consulted residents to learn their recommendations for improving access to healthy food. After a meeting with Mesquite residents, El Calvario United Methodist Church followed up on an idea for a free, monthly market. “Our meeting was a catalyst, but this group did the work,” said Krysten Aguilar, food planning and policy advocacy specialist for La Semilla. A church committee started the Agape Free Market in October 2015, providing free, fresh produce, staple grocery items, cooking demonstrations, nutrition education and basic health and well-being information. The church solicits produce donations from farmers at the end of their market day and partners with a thrift store to give out children’s clothing.
Mesquite residents also expressed interest in a mobile food cart that sells produce and offers gardening and cooking education, including ideas and places to garden in a neighborhood with small yards and vacant lots. To help make mobile carts a possibility, La Semilla first tackled policy issues by educating county officials about the prevalence of food deserts, the link between diet-related illnesses and healthy food access, and how mobile markets are an economically viable way to address access problems. As a result, the county voted to allow food trucks and mobile markets to operate in Doña Ana.

On a broader level, La Semilla has been working closely with city staff to create a Las Cruces Urban Agriculture and Food Plan, which includes recommendations and goals that support and incentivize urban agriculture and healthy food outlets. “This is everything from making sure zoning codes allow farm stands and mobile markets to pursuing something like double food bucks at farmers’ markets and using vacant lots for farms,” Aguilar said. “We got such great support from city staff and the council. That’s a big policy piece.”

La Semilla is also advocating that local government create a Healthy Food Financing Initiative Fund based on successful models elsewhere. With a pool of public funds and matching money from foundations, small businesses or entrepreneurs could get low-interest loans or grants to operate a business around healthy food in underserved areas. A corner store could get a loan to add cold storage for fresh food, or a person could get financial help for setting up a mobile food cart. In addition to these long-term policies, La Semilla secured a federal grant to launch a mobile food truck that will visit about eight places, including Mesquite, each week between Las Cruces and El Paso, Texas. The truck will start its route in April.

In Vado-Del Cerro, people were also interested in mobile food outlets, as well as a community garden, a particularly challenging task for an area that doesn’t have access to water. To assist both neighborhoods, La Semilla staff developed funding plans, budgets and a funding database.

La Semilla recognizes that it wouldn’t have accomplished much on its own. Partnerships have been key, a philosophy Con Alma considers crucial when investing in nonprofits. “Everybody wants their community to be healthy,” Aguilar said. “People have been incredibly generous with their time and their networks and willingness to open up to us. Letting the community be the guide is the only way to have any kind of sustained change.”

Dolores E. Roybal is executive director of Con Alma Health Foundation. Conalma.org