Santiago Maestas has been growing fruits and vegetables on a small plot of land in the South Valley for over 40 years. He's standing by a centuries-old acequia near Isleta Boulevard south of Albuquerque—a modest, earthen ditch carrying slow-moving irrigation water away from the Rio Grande and into fields and gardens.
This area was farmland years ago, before the city closed in around it. But for all the changes the neighborhood has gone through, the acequias have remained. Maestas says today these acequias and the urban farming culture they support are a nutritional lifeline for a community where local, organic produce might otherwise be out of reach.
“We’re a community,” he said. “Failing schools, poverty rate, gangs and violence, but at least we own our land and we have water rights, and we got our children to feed.”
Childhood obesity risk is high and nearly 60 percent of children live in poverty in some areas here. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates over 65 percent of people in parts of the South Valley have limited access to healthy food. That means a lot of people here don’t have a grocery store nearby, or can’t afford nutritious food.
Ironically, the small farm fields in these same neighborhoods grow some of the highest quality produce in Albuquerque. People pay top dollar for South Valley-grown crops at farmers markets and health food stores where something like lettuce can sell for eight dollars a pound.
“There’s no possible way our neighbors here, this community in the majority or even ourselves would pay eight dollars for a pound of lettuce,” said Richard Moore, who runs the nonprofit Los Jardines Institute, a community farm that grows organic crops with the help of neighborhood volunteers. Moore says the high price of healthy food has real consequences for the community in general, and for children in particular.
“If a child is not receiving the proper nourishment, then that child will fall asleep in school, there’s learning disabilities and all that. Well then, what are we going to do about it? How are we going to reverse that situation?” Moore asked.
What South Valley farmers are doing about it is sharing crops with neighbors and volunteers, and giving a percentage of their harvest to the Agri-Cultura network, a group that distributes local vegetables to low-income families at a subsidized price.
Travis McKenzie runs Grow the Future community farm nearby. He says there’s an added benefit to growing food for neighbors who need it—it builds a sense of pride in the South Valley’s agricultural heritage.
“Colonization’s a real thing, urbanization, institutional racism, poverty wages—there’s a lot of things that are affecting our communities,” he said. “And so [it’s important] to remember our ancestral knowledge of this water system that’s ancient, or growing corn which is ancient, or even just the concept of community is very ancient.”
One way Grow the Future tries to pass on that old knowledge is by hosting field trips for schools in the neighborhood and throughout Albuquerque. A class from Amy Biehl High School visited the farm to get a dose of acequia culture while learning how to plant and till the soil.
"This is farmland, it was farmland first and foremost,” said Jessica Fillmore, a teacher at Amy Biehl. “I think a lot of that has been lost, but it’s coming back and that’s a really powerful thing. Right in the middle of the city.”
The movement to grow food for people in need is picking up here, and at an impressive rate. Over the past six years the Agri-Cultura Network has enlisted 12 South Valley farms to donate food to low-income families.