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Planting the Seed: NMSU alumni and faculty help La Semilla Food Center

Planting the seed of self-sufficiency and improving access to healthy foods for all residents of Southern New Mexico are the main goals for La Semilla Food Center.


Cristina Dominguez-Eshelman, left, of La Semilla Food Center, and Selena Rossi, right, a. seventh grader at Sierra Middle School kneel down as they work in the
Cristina Dominguez-Eshelman, left, of La Semilla Food Center, and Selena Rossi, right, a seventh grader at Sierra Middle School, work in the school's garden. (submitted photo)

Two years ago this month, the nonprofit La Semilla Food Center was founded by former New Mexico State University alumni Aaron Sharratt and Rebecca Wiggins-Reinhard, as well as Cristina Dominguez-Eshelman, former coordinator of NMSU's Frontier Interdisciplinary Experiences program. La Semilla is an outgrowth of the trio's efforts with the Colonias Development Council, where they worked with youth and their families in Vado, Anthony and Chaparral to build community gardens, construct greenhouses and create youth development and educational projects.

"Over the years we saw the impact that our projects were having, as well as the need that existed in terms of an entity that just focused on food issues and really addressed hunger and poverty," said Sharratt, co-director of La Semilla, who earned his master's degree in anthropology at NMSU. "Our mission is to create a really vibrant and local food system in the Paso del Norte region, and to do that we know it's a very long-term goal considering that most of our production in this region is exported to other places.

"As a region we don't feed ourselves, so trying to get to where we can feed ourselves, where people are involved in growing, where we have thriving local economies ? we know that food and agricultural production is a very important element of that," he added.

La Semilla is receiving funds and other help from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Paso del Norte Health Foundation, the New Mexico Community Foundation and the Community Foundation of Southern New Mexico, among others. Local small businesses also are assisting La Semilla.

"The approach we take to food system development is very comprehensive," Sharratt said. "It involves a number of very different projects and programs that we are developing, but also a number of different collaborations and partnerships. We work in the school settings in Anthony and Las Cruces, where we are working to develop school gardens."

The school gardens are located at Loma Linda Elementary School in Anthony and Sierra Middle School in Las Cruces. La Semilla's Kristina St. Cyr coordinates the Sierra Middle School garden and works closely with teachers and students.

"I try to integrate food education, nutrition, food systems into their curriculum. I work with students inside and outside in the garden. We do a lot of hands-on fun activities in the garden, but we also try to make it so it is integrated into the actual curriculum," St. Cyr said. "Once everything started growing, we taught them how to continue to take care of their plants and how to weed the plot. They would continually come out to take data and they would water it and make sure everything was doing OK."

Melly Locke, a seventh grade science teacher at Sierra Middle School, has found La Semilla's help in teaching her students invaluable, even if she did have to show some of the youngsters in her charge how to use shovels and hoes.

"I am a believer in having kids actually be hands-on with their science experiments," Locke said. "They can talk about experimentation, they can talk about growing a plant, but when they actually do it, they have a much better feel for what they can learn and they have an opportunity to learn in a real-life situation."

In keeping with La Semilla's mission, the school gardens expose the youngsters to the process of how food gets from the fields to the grocery store and, finally, to their plates. The gardens also teach the students that healthy food can be affordable and accessible.

It's a lesson seventh grade Sierra Middle School student, Selena Rossi, already is incorporating into her life.

"It's actually because of this experience that I have been inspired to start my own garden," she said. "So far it's been coming along really well."

And La Semilla also is working to show families that cooking at home and making healthy choices benefit the entire family.

"There's such a connection we have with food that goes beyond subsistence," said Rebecca Wiggins-Reinhard, a co-director of La Semilla who earned her master's degree in political science from NMSU. "It's tied to our personal identity; it's tied to our culture, our families. We build memories around holiday meals, picking peaches right off the tree in summertime. So food is important to our lives in many ways. La Semilla, for me, is really an opportunity to work with youth to help them become advocates for change in their communities."

Sharratt hopes that the next major engine for change at La Semilla is a multi-acre tract of land near Anthony that has been donated to the organization. The plan is to create a youth and community farm on the spot.

"We are working to create a kind of food hub; in a way a microcosm of what a localized food system would look like, connecting production with consumers and community members," he said.

Dominguez-Eshelman said La Semilla is working with community leaders to make the farm not only a place where youngsters will learn how to grow their own food, but also how to market their produce directly to the community. Eventually, La Semilla would like the 14-acre farmland two miles north of Anthony to become a community-gathering place.

"We'll grow on part of it with our youth and other people will have the opportunity to grow there as well," Dominguez-Eshelman said. "Long term we're hoping to have a community center where we can produce value-added products and also offer different workshops, so that this community space would be a place where we could discuss food systems issues and other issues facing the community."

Sharratt credits NMSU and its faculty for helping to nurture La Semilla and its mission. Last year, La Semilla worked out of office space in Studio G inside the Entrepreneurship Institute at the Arrowhead Center. But La Semilla's connections to NMSU run deeper.

Constance Falk, professor of agricultural economics and agricultural business in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, has been involved with La Semilla since its inception and currently sits on the board of directors. She said it has been rewarding to see a nonprofit such as La Semilla grow from the ground up and hopes other NMSU faculty members and students take time to learn about and help the organization.

"To the extent that we can work with community groups to solve real problems, I think that only brings to the classroom and brings to our research something that is exciting and relevant and hopefully has an impact on improving the lives of everyone here," Falk said, "New Mexico State University, being a land-grant university, that is our mission: to serve the needs of the rural population and agricultural producers ? that's our mandate from the beginning. The work of La Semilla embodies that tradition, that goal and that mission."

M. Lois Stanford, associate professor of anthropology, supervised Sharratt's field research in Mexico and is heartened by the fact that her former student remained in Las Cruces and has committed himself to helping the regional community.

"What I think La Semilla has really demonstrated is the important contribution our students can make to the community and their ability to really come up with innovative and creative projects," said Stanford, who also sits on La Semilla's board of directors. "As faculty on the board, we are really advising and are there to provide support. But the energy and the drive and the vision for La Semilla come from these ex-students. We've prepared them; we've trained them academically. It's exciting to see what our former students can do in the community with those skills."

For his part, Sharratt is grateful to NMSU for the education he received and the helping hands that have been offered.

"My experience at NMSU really prepared me in every way," he said. "A number of faculty members have been involved at various stages and really stepped up and helped in any way they could."

For more information visit www.lasemillafoodcenter.org.


SIDEBAR

La Semilla Food Center's Goals:

? Ensure that all residents have access to affordable and healthy food
? Empower youth participation in local food system development
? Train young farmers in sustainable agriculture
? Teach about the links between food, health and economies
? Help farmers develop innovative marketing opportunities
? Assist food entrepreneurs develop and market food products
? Build networks to support local food infrastructure and business