Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Project Feed the Hood Empowers International District’s Youth

Access to Nutritious Food Improves Health Equity and Educational Outcomes


“My mom always told me that she needed me to be able to provide for the family when I became an adult. I took that as I need to be able to meet the very basics and the very basics are food and water. That's really the future,” Mateo Carrasco told The Paper.

Carrasco, the Food Justice Organizer for the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) about their Project Feed the Hood talked with The Paper. about how the project supports the International District.

“The Feed the Hood project is a food literacy and community gardening initiative that aims to improve community health through education and revival of traditional growing methods,” Carrasco said. The project is focused on supporting children of low-income families’ access to nutritious food to improve health equity and educational outcomes within communities.

Carrasco, now 28 years-old, oversees the admin for the project’s community garden at 3400 Ross Avenue SE. He works with Albuquerque Public Schools, charter schools, students and a variety of partners to build gardens throughout the International District.

In 2014, while a student at the University of New Mexico, Carrasco met Travis McKenzie, his future mentor, who with Rodrigo Rodriguez co-founded Project Feed the Hood a decade ago. He started as a youth intern with the project at the age of 19.  In his second year there, the youth internship expanded. Carrasco became a senior intern and eventually an AmeriCorps service member with SWOP. In 2020 he became the full time Food Justice Organizer for SWOP, the umbrella that provides support and funding for the Feed the Hood project.

Feed the Hood in Albuquerque’s Schools

It has been the deep desire from teachers and educators who understand the value of the project’s work that has kept them in the public schools. Carrasco said if teachers want to teach their students about their food system and where their food is coming from, he will do everything within his power to provide them with the resources they need.

“Charter schools in my experience, have been a lot easier to work with than APS. It's a lot easier for us to move in and out and build substantive relationships with Charter School teachers and administration because there isn't as much red tape,” Carrasco explained.

He said the Food Corps was Project Feed the Hood’s foot in the door a number of years ago into the youth educational system. “What we do now is provide a lot of infrastructural support for people in the schools that want to create gardens or are trying to get irrigation fixed or whatever it may be.”

“APS has created some level of investment within school gardens,” Carrasco said. “However when a new principal comes in there can be different priorities, different levels of support, different levels of investment in supporting the project’s work.”

Currently, they have working relationships with Kirtland Elementary School, Whittier and Van Buuren. “We have had our share of ups and downs but persevere together to make sure families in the International District have enough to eat,” Carrasco said.

Now in its 10th season, the project works with high school students who first became interested in gardening at school gardens that Feed the Hood built in their elementary schools. “The youth interns are now a huge part of the work that we do and a major part of the larger work in the community,” Carrasco said.

Carrasco said over the years the project has created youth jobs, scholarships, contracts, and full time jobs for the school district. It has also opened up higher educational opportunities for these students. SWOP’s support of local farmers and growers has created opportunities for catering companies and microbusinesses.

“Whittier, as an institution within APS has been extremely supportive and accepting of us coming into the school, supporting their knowledge base and supporting the people who come there,” He said principal Kimberly Fink has been very supportive of the project. “They gave me a portable with a kitchen and a bathroom to be able to do my work and be able to pull out students from classes.”

Project Feed the Hood’s Community Garden

“The garden manager and three year-long intern positions comprising youth from the neighborhood, are essentially the heartbeat of Project Feed the Hood. I couldn't do anything without my crew.”

The project has between 5-15 student youth interns per year that are paid $15 an hour to work on the Feed the Hood Garden. “We have had past situations where these young people put money on their parents' books in jail. Or the youth will take their entire families out and pay for everything so that they can do something with their family. They'll help pay for bills. Or they'll help pay for diapers. They're not just playing video games.”

“The larger conversation that we explore in our internship programs is why do communities look like this? Why does hunger exist? We're literally planting seeds, right? You don't plant a tree for shade for yourself, you plant it for the next generation,” Carrasco said.

Abuela’s Medicina, a group of medicine women healers, stewards a section of the garden called the Medicine Wheel. The Native American Community Academy harvests medicinal herbs from the garden and takes them back to the school to show students how to create tinctures and medicines.

“Folks can just come into our garden and harvest every other Friday or pick some up at the Food Hub on San Mateo and Canberra.”

Feed the Hood is not the only contributing grower to the Food Hub or the community. Food is also distributed by the International District Healthy Community Coalition, Albuquerque Mutual Aid, the International District County Community Coalition and Central Ministries.

Feed the Hood’s Future

“We have been on an unprecedented path of growth. We're not a big enough organization to sustain the capacity that we need to continue to do this work efficiently,” Carrasco said. “We're currently restructuring trying to change and invigorate our immediate community around us.”

Carrasco is starting graduate school at Arizona State University for Nonprofit Management for the skills he needs to be able to be a more effective director of sustainable projects. “As I step out of the way the youth that we've been training and teaching and working with have an opportunity to step into this position of leadership,” Carrasco said.

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