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Breaking bread for more organic school lunches in New Mexico

Guests at the harvest meal: Mary Darling and Hamish Thomson of the Albuquerque Monthly Meeting of Friends   Photo: Photo: AFSC/David Henkel

On Oct. 11, a number of New Mexico state senators enjoyed a harvest meal made with produce grown by farmers from AFSC’s training program. David Henkel of Santa Fe, N.M., who serves as recording clerk of AFSC’s Board of Directors, shared this account of the dinner.

The tables stretched the length of a wall upon which a mural depicted agricultural themes including—César Chávez, a man plowing a field by tractor, the Three Sisters (Miss Corn, Miss Beans, and Miss Squash), and Sen. Dennis Chávez, emblazoned with the name of the South Valley Economic Development Center, the local multi-purpose business incubator that provided space for the event.

Guests gathered slowly, greeted friends, some, unknown to them, were also supporters of the project. The community was wider than one might have thought, and some guests drove 200 miles up from Las Cruces and Anthony or 70 miles down from Santa Fe.

I had arrived early and found the tables set with colorful arrangements of fruits and squash, packets of seeds, and sparkling glassware, all threaded together by tiny electric lights. The afternoon had threatened rain showers, but following the blessing of the meal the rain abated, and the evening unfolded al fresco under warm autumn skies.

The harvest meal, which was organized by the Albuquerque Monthly Meeting and supporters and staff of the AFSC's New Mexico program, highlighted the cooperation between state legislators and local community members that have linked the farmer training program to the Albuquerque Public Schools through a budgetary set-aside providing nutritious, organic food to children in the school lunch and snack programs.

The meal provided an opportunity for legislators, community residents, and program supporters to meet each other face to face, and engage in quiet conversations about strategies for expansion to other parts of New Mexico. Legislators also encouraged community members to contact other elected officials to spread this highly popular, inexpensive, and non-partisan program.

The three-year AFSC program, supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the New Mexico-based McCune Foundation, trains new farmers to grow organic produce with the cooperation of local landowners whose property had been unused for periods of time but who wanted to see it used to support community needs.

The produce is sold to the local school meals programs and to farmers markets and local subscribing restaurants. The state legislature had approved a budget measure that enabled lunch and snacks programs to purchase from these local suppliers. The success of the program has caught the attention of people in parts of the state along the Rio Grande corridor, and a new grant from the Kellogg Foundation has allowed it to expand.

The event consisted of a social hour attended by supporters and members of the Albuquerque Friends Meeting; a four-minute film about the farmer training program narrated by an 8-year old pupil in the local schools and produced by the Agri-Cultura Network, the partnership organization that grew out of the project; and was followed by a meal for a somewhat smaller group of farmers, legislators, community activists, and committee members.

Sen. Dede Feldman, whose legislation made it possible for Albuquerque Public Schools to purchase local food from AFSC-trained farmers, explained the importance of the legislation and encouraged the other legislators there to craft similar legislation. "This policy is by far the most popular policy that I have ever introduced,” she said. “It was nothing but a positive response."

I was impressed to see that so many legislators made time to attend a non-campaign event at this time of year. 

This breaking of bread was not only symbolic of relations between community members and their elected representatives: It featured locally grown fruits and vegetables grown by the trainee farmers and presented by the 2011 New Mexico Chef of the Year Stan Wacker and his team from the La Vida Llena retirement community.

A sample of items from the menu:

  • Freekeh, a nutrient-rich grain, wrapped in Swiss chard
  • Radish bok choy slaw
  • Quinoa-stuffed poblano chile
  • Apples and pears poached in Riesling wine and served with quince balsamic reduction

In addition to a warm and convivial social exchange, the evening also nurtured an agreement to expand legislative and community support for the program to link local small-scale agriculture to local schools.