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Policy experts push greater support for New Mexico farmers

Dec 7, 2020  | Ep4617

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Amid a pandemic that continues to alter global supply chains, food policy advocates met recently to discuss the future of sustainable agriculture in New Mexico, where "food deserts" have long separated hungry children from healthy lives.

The virtual conference on reimagining New Mexico's food economy focused on shifting the state's food chain toward supporting local farmers — a longstanding goal proponents say takes on even greater importance in the wake of the pandemic's effects on growers and consumers.

Krysten Aguilar, co-executive director of La Semilla Food Center, a nonprofit based in Anthony, New Mexico, called for statewide participation in the Healthy Food Financing Initiative. The program is a U.S. Department of Agriculture program started in 2014 that provides grants and loans to community organizations and businesses working to provide healthy food and jobs to areas without much of either.

According to the USDA, most of New Mexico qualifies as a food desert — large areas without access to affordable, healthy nourishment.

"We can't focus on Band-Aid solutions for systemic problems. Yes we need emergency assistance and funds, but we also have to invest significantly into long-term sustainable systemic solutions that address those root causes of poverty," Aguilar said. "One of the best tools we have to do this work is the food system."

Aguilar said the state is eligible for up to $2 million per year from the federal program to combine with state and local resources to establish grocery stores, farmer's markets and other infrastructure.

"In the short term, we're trying to improve access to healthy food," Aguilar said. "In the long term, we're looking to support small businesses, reduce hunger and improve community health."

Aguilar was on a panel with state Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte and Department of Economic Development Secretary Alicia Keyes.

Witte said if the state can increase consumption of local agricultural products by just 15%, New Mexico would raise the sum of its per capita gross domestic product by about $750 million. Keyes said sustainable agriculture could help replace state revenues plummeting in other sectors.

"We are looking to diversify our economy outside of oil and gas," she said. "COVID has emerged (as) a wake up call for locally grown food and a sustainable economy that can withstand a global supply chain shock."

Through its farm-to-school program, the Public Education Department last year gave $450,000 in grants to 58 school districts, which are often the largest food service operations in town. During the conference, the agency's farm-to-school specialist, Kendal Chavez, talked about scaling that model beyond schools to give local farmers consistent business.

"I'm looking at farm-to-senior center and farm-to-child care and other ways to use what we've learned in a decade of the farm-to-school program," Chavez said. "We want to formulate a system for the future instead of reacting to dollars coming in through agencies and spending money. We're moving on from a flat, valueless, transactional system measured by pounds purchased or dollars spent."

Isabelle Jenniches from the New Mexico Healthy Soils Working Group said her organization found 70% of farmers in New Mexico do not make a profit and the state exports 97% of food grown in state — while importing 95% of food consumed.

In a state where roughly 1 in 4 children is food insecure, speakers at the conference see plenty of room for growth.

"We are advocating for local investment in our agricultural system, because our experience in New Mexico has been anytime anything happened in the central valley of California, it was felt here in New Mexico," New Mexico Food and Agriculture Policy Council President Helga Garcia-Garza said. "The bigger vision is to be able to continue to feed our state with sustainable and regenerative growing methods."

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