Working with schools and communities to grow healthy, organic food can be a tool for enriching educational environments and increasing student success. The Growing Health and Justice Coalition, formed in 2016, works with schools in the International District and South Valley of Albuquerque. The coalition’s mission is to help create healthy school environments and local food experiences for youth and families. As partners, its unique role is to build relationships and provide opportunities for both increasing technical knowledge and engaging schools and community. The coalition is building upon food procurement initiatives and cultural education taking place in six pilot schools, as well as helping to strengthen school gardens and farm-to-school initiatives across the Albuquerque Public School District.
In conjunction with these demonstration projects, we are advocating policy changes.
At Atrisco Heritage Academy, the largest charter high school in the state, the number one issue identified from a survey that went out to hundreds of students and families was hunger. This year some students who are a part of the student council worked hard to create Food Justice Awareness Week. With the help of community organizations and former community schools coordinator Sonora Rodríguez, the students created educational activities and opportunities for the students, staff and the community to develop solutions to address hunger in our communities. They organized fun activities during their lunch period, including smoothie bikes, seed murals and music, all of which highlighted these issues. They also took the concept of a TED talk and created JAG talks (the school’s mascot is the jaguar), during which food-justice activists of all ages shared information. The school hopes to create edible landscapes across the campus and possibly a “Student Success Garden,” where students who have to do community service can do more than pick up trash; they can be involved in growing nutritious food for their school and community. We are also working with students and administrators to draft a capital outlay proposal to create an Agroecology Learning Center that would weave together agriculture and recreational space.
At Van Buren Middle School, in less than four months, 1,500 square feet of new garden space has been planted. With the help of Principal Jeri Heileman and community schools coordinator Silvina Tello, a garden initiative called “Sembrando Jardines” (Sowing Gardens) was rolled out and a theme for the year entitled “We are Van Buren, Growing Together” was created. The school welcomed teachers back by having breakfast in one of the new gardens. This got them thinking about how the garden can be a vehicle for education and positive social change. Having a principal who supports the initiative has been crucial in enabling the school to weave together academic content with hands-on experience in the garden. Principal Heileman said, “We are teaching so much more than just growing fruits and vegetables; we are teaching nurturing, patience, hope, perseverance. Really it’s about growing a community. When you are working alongside each other with hands in the ground, that’s equity; that’s healing and transformative education.”
Kirtland Elementary has been growing its garden initiative for nearly a decade and has touched the lives of hundreds of students and families. Community schools coordinator María Márquez said, “The gardens have allowed families to become integral assets for the school. As a result, we have seen an overall increase in scholastic achievement, parental activism and volunteerism. Everyone helps tend the school’s community garden, and that creates a sense of ownership for our families. Our garden now produces food for most of our 272 students and their families. Our teachers are using the garden as part of daily curriculum, and the Kirtland Korner after-school program is engaging students and their families.”
The Growing Health and Justice Coalition is helping to create positive social change and to transform our education system. For more information, call 505.331.6390 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Travis McKenzie co-founded Lobo Gardens, Project Feed the Hood, Grow the Future and has been part of the New Mexico Acequia Association’s Sembrando Semillas Intergenerational Network. He also farms with Cornelio Candelaria Organics.