This story was originally published at EatABQ, the city's food, restaurant and drinks guide. EatABQ is a publication of The Paper, ABQ's new alternative, independent weekly.
Food is Free Albuquerque first showed up on my radar many years back. Living near the university, I—and the whole neighborhood—could see their efforts on display in their participation at the free food distro at the Peace and Justice Center every Saturday morning. After moving away down to the South Broadway neighborhood, I had forgotten all about the organization—until they came to me. In early April, during the initial weeks of the pandemic-induced shutdown, I was sitting up on my roof reading when I heard a bit of a commotion coming from down the block. A pickup truck was parked in the middle of the street, and two youths were passing out tomato starts to any household who wanted them! I nabbed two and, during my sincere thanks, realized that the volunteers were sporting bright green Food is Free Albuquerque tee shirts. The Paper. reached out to FIFABQ to see what they are doing in the community and how they have pivoted to continue their fight against food insecurity and food waste through the COVID-19 shit storm we are all weathering. Their executive director, Erin Garrison, spoke with us about FIFABQ’s roots, their whimsical yet hard-working approach and their deep community bonds.
The Paper.: How did Food is Free Albuquerque first get started?
Erin Garrison: Our organization is a local branch of a global movement that strives to give people access to free, healthy food. The project has roots in Austin but grew here in Albuquerque in an organic manner. At first we were just harvesting backyards with growers who gave us the go ahead to “take what you need.” We placed an ad on craigslist. Ten growers responded. Our very first harvest netted us over 200 pounds of apples! Because we couldn’t use them all ourselves, we instead began giving the apples away, and we never canned again. All 10 of those volunteer donors helped create what is now FIFABQ.
Does the organization have a mission statement?
Yes, fresh food is a human right.
Can you tell our readers what gleaning is and what role it plays for you and the rest of FIF?
Gleaning means cleaning the tree off. Harvesting and utilizing everything that can be put to use. This means we do not just take ripe fruit or vegetables when harvesting but that we also focus efforts on the ground below. Fruit that has fallen can still make for excellent animal feed or compost. We apply this ethos whether we are working at farms or in peoples’ backyards. Nothing is wasted and everything is used.
What sets you all apart from other organizations here in Albuquerque that also work toward providing food security?
Well, we focus on fighting waste by offering a helping hand to those who have excesses of fruits and vegetables. When we got to one of our first donor’s farms, they had what seemed like endless ears of corn still on the plants for us to harvest. Our small team harvested over 2,000 pounds that day, which was all distributed throughout the community. This early experience showed us the kind of hard work it takes to distribute this quantity of produce from going to waste. It was not our last food “emergency,” but it cemented the idea that we can and should scramble to save viable, tasty produce. It also taught us a lot about how to employ what we call “mindful distribution,” which means creating a strong enough network around the city that we can get large quantities of produce where it needs to go before it has to go to the compost.
Have you all changed up your approach during these last nine months of the pandemic?
Yes, we certainly have. We have always been creative, tenacious and whimsical in our approach. A project which was created in response to the pandemic was actually how you first found us—what we call “Gift of Growing.” In March we found ourselves facing this unprecedented situation along with our entire community, and we were asking, “What’s next?” We wanted to help our community and give people something positive to focus on. The entire project started with a 50 dollar budget. At first we were breaking down used pallets and reworking them into garden boxes. We received some coverage from KRQE, and there was an immense community response. Nearly 10,000 people eventually signed up! However, we also got an enormous amount of community support through donations, and that support allowed us to get planters to people all over the city. The “Gift of Growing” also ties in with our seed-sharing program that we got started on about four years ago. The Seed Share isn’t a straight-up swap. More of a “If you have seeds, please bring them. If you need seeds, come get some.” It has also really taken off. We were able to distribute over 5,000 seed packs during this last season. These two projects speak to what we are all about. Not just working to help assist with food security but also thinking how we can provide in a more meaningful and lasting way. It is scientifically proven that working in the soil with plants is beneficial to peoples’ mental health.
In your work around the city do you collaborate with any other local organizations?
I can not stress enough how important community collaboration and care is to us. Without the support and encouragement that we get from both individuals and other organizations, we never could have achieved anything close to what we have. Especially during these unsettling times, it means the world to have the community wrapped around us! If you check out our website, you can see where we work in solidarity with other local organizations in the fight for food justice and raise funds together. Some of the groups that we partner with are the Rio Grande Food Project, Roots Farm, Mandy’s Farm, and Food not Bombs Albuquerque. These are just a few of the amazing groups we work with. When they are succeeding, we are too!
How can people assist you in all these efforts?
Well, donating is easy. Visit our website, and you will see a “donate” button on the top right corner. Volunteering has been a bit more complicated due to COVID precautions. That said, people can still sign up. We are looking forward to continuing working with our community and partners.