Growing a Neighborhood

by Christie Chisholm, LocalFlavor Magazine, April 2011 

A patch of dirt heaped with old tires, soiled diapers and needles is an odd place for a garden. When the SouthWest Organizing Project got permission from the City of Albuquerque to take over the tract in early 2010, its workers and volunteers lugged out mounds of the stuff, including more than 35 wheelbarrows’ worth of glass. But once the weeds and debris were plucked and plots were laid, it produced more than 6,800 square feet of scarlet runners, tomatoes, onions, sweet corn, squash, pumpkins and yellow-meat watermelons, among a cornucopia of other produce.

Dubbed the Feed the Hood project, the mission of SWOP’s garden is to distribute fresh, healthy food to area residents. Sandwiched between the affluent Ridgecrest and Nob Hill areas, the Southeast Heights garden sits on the corner of Ross and Wellesley, in a low-income and somewhat transient neighborhood. SWOP chose this plot for a reason: to organize.

The purpose of the nonprofit is to unite underprivileged communities of color, and it strives to reach that purpose in a multiplicity of ways—through grassroots campaigns for political action, with education and leadership building, and by raising awareness. SWOP isn’t an agricultural organization, but since 2007 it’s tried to bring communities together through gardening. Its first garden sat in the South Valley, and another one was established at the base of Pajarito Mesa in 2009. “We want to make a garden in every area of the city,” says Rodrigo Rodriguez, a SWOP organizer who helps run the project.

The idea for starting a garden in this neighborhood came about through conversations with City Councilor Rey Garduño, who oversees the district. After about four months of talking, the space was settled on in January of last year, just in time to get it ready for spring planting. The land is donated by the city for this use, but SWOP doesn’t own it. Because it’s city property, the nonprofit can’t build any permanent structures on it, and it can’t sell any of the food it grows—not that it would want to, anyway. One of the main reasons it has the garden is to give its harvest away, and Rodriguez and others give it away by the sackful every chance they get. Mostly, they give it away to kids.

Two elementary schools—Bandelier and Kirtland—bookend the garden, and so most of the people who pass by are kids. Because of this, most of the people who volunteer to work in the garden are kids, too. SWOP even bought a few sets of tiny hoes and rakes to make it easier for young hands to turn the soil. But even the kids who don’t step foot inside the garden’s walls are offered food. “We’ll send kids with a bag of tomatoes,” says Rodriguez, “and tell them to take it to someone.”

Rodriguez says simple things like a bag of tomatoes can make a difference. Because the neighborhood is so impoverished, he says, kids don’t always have food at home. “Some of these kids are just hungry,” he says. “They’ve told me.” He recalls a time he handed a bag brimming with tomatoes and onions to a little boy and instructed him to take it home. After a few minutes, he walked outside the garden and found the little boy sitting and eating tomatoes. “He said he had no food,” Rodriguez says. “He eats at school, but he doesn’t always eat at home.”

Rodriguez attributes the problem partially to the fact that, as is the case in many low-income communities around the country, there aren’t any grocery stores in the neighborhood. The closest one, he says, is a Smith’s on Yale and Coal, which is about two miles away. Since many residents don’t have cars, it’s a trek that prevents some people from buying food on a regular basis. “It’s a food desert,” he says.

There also aren’t any farmers’ markets in the area. “People here don’t even know what a growers’ market is,” he says. He hopes that initiatives like the garden will help to change that.

Every Saturday, Rodriguez and other SWOP members turn the garden into a living, working classroom by teaching different workshops. Past workshops have been on topics such as composting, rainwater harvesting and seed saving. SWOP advertises its workshops on its website and sends out e-mails, and neighbors have come to expect the weekly classes. The largest class size the organization’s had is 20 adults, and Rodriguez wants to see that grow. “At some point, I want to go door to door,” he says.

After only a year, the garden has already started to spreads its roots in the community. “We’ve had several hundred volunteers,” he says. “Tons of kids come out; [schools] bring busloads of kids.” About 40 children from the neighborhood are regulars at the garden, and Rodriguez says they love it. “They’re genuinely interested in learning. And they know that when they come to the garden, they’re there to work.” 

They also like taking home the prizes they helped grow. “We planted jack-o-lanterns,” Rodriguez says. “This little girl walked out with a pumpkin as big as her. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone so happy in my life.”

The garden isn’t a silver bullet, and the neighborhood still has issues, but residents like having it there, and for the most part they defend it. “Nothing’s gone missing, the tools are still here,” says Rodriguez. Once, one of the garden’s scarecrows was set on fire in the middle of the night, but rather than let it burn, neighbors used the water from a nearby kiddie pool to extinguish it. It may seem like a small gesture, but Rodriguez sees it as a mark of a community pulling together.

People from Ridgecrest have gotten involved, too. “They have gardens,” Rodriguez says, “but they bring seeds and extra plants.” One of SWOP’s goals is to show people how to grow their own food at home as well, so they can start their own gardens. Part of that is teaching them about seed saving. 

SWOP has been generating a seed library for the last four years, and in that relatively small amount of time, it’s already amassed hundreds of varieties. Some seeds have come from colleagues’ and friends’ personal gardens, like the corn seed someone found in an attic that had been stashed there for 50 years and still sprouted. All of the seed is non-GMO, and SWOP especially likes finding heritage seeds that reflect New Mexican farming traditions. The organization now has so much seed, it’s still in the process of cataloguing all of it—last year it harvested seeds from 25 pounds’ worth of beans alone. 

One of the advantages of creating a seed library, Rodriguez says—other than the obvious benefits of cost-saving and sustainability—is that over time plants, and their seeds, will adapt to their surroundings and produce more food. “Seeds get used to the city environment,” he says. “They get acclimated to places that aren’t optimal.”

Eventually, SWOP wants to hand over the garden to residents so it can establish new gardens in other neighborhoods and spread knowledge about nutrition and community health. For Rodriguez, the project is about a lot more than growing food. It’s about the social, political and economic implications of food systems. “It’s about eating healthy,” he says. “Talking about what we’re eating and why we’re eating it.”