There has been a lot of talk lately about food issues facing our community, from food deserts to the myriad issues small farmers face in processing and distributing their glorious goods; not to mention the fact that farming is an expensive gamble. Farmers' hard work and financial investment only pay off if uncontrollable pitfalls such as weather, pests, and a rapidly changing market for demand cooperate. These conversations were furthered recently in a group think tank organized by a non-profit called Ruminate, which brought together a group of about 40 farmers, chefs, produce buyers and food policy professionals to discuss—and hopefully find creative solutions to—food distribution issues in Santa Fe.
"The solutions we are going for are social innovations—programs and
projects and even digital solutions such as apps that help connect farmers and consumers," says Sascha Anderson, Ruminate's education director. "We try to be agile in figuring out solutions, and with these workshops we hope the working groups can identify an idea to move forward with that we can help support."
It's good to know so many people are talking about and working for change in this arena, as agriculture in New Mexico is nothing to sneeze at. According to a recent study by New Mexico State University, farming (along with food processing) provides more than 50,000 jobs statewide and accounts for more than $10.5 billion (12.3%, to be exact) of our state's $86.5 billion gross state product. The Santa Fe area obviously has an incredible diversity when it comes to farming, a bustling farmers market, and restaurants that support and champion local farmers, but is there something more that you or I can do as individuals to support local agriculture as well?
"At the end of the day, it's all about getting food into people's hands," says Alex Pino, owner of Arroyo Hondo's Revolution Farm. Pino is a vendor at both the Santa Fe and Eldorado Farmers Markets, and also supplies produce to local restaurants like Sage Bakehouse, Dr. Field Goods, Harry's Roadhouse and Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen. From his viewpoint, procuring locally-grown produce from the Farmers Market or La Montañita Co-op really is the best thing a consumer can do but so, also, is talking about it.
"An educated consumer is the biggest help," Pino points out. "When people
understand the value of the product they can help to educate others."
Education breeds encouragement which can take many forms, from
inspiring chefs to buy direct from local farmers to pushing lawmakers for
subsidies to keep produce in our community.
"We are a food insecure state," Pino tells SFR. "If we could get more local food into food insecure hands, then local people say, on the WIC program, have access to the high-quality fresh food they need and there's more money for the farmer."
Then there's Nina Yozell-Epstein's Squash Blossom Local Food, a social
enterprise-driven company which aims "to provide a dependable income stream for local farmers, bring healthier food to our community, and strengthen our
local economy." Squash Blossom provides a service similar to a CSA, delivering to subscribers a weekly bag of fresh produce. Unlike traditional CSAs, which deliver whatever a particular farm has ready, Squash Blossom sources from over 25 local farms for a greater variety of product. A weekly "Blossom Bag" subscription is only $28 and contains all kinds of goodies—a recent delivery included blackberries, okra, string beans, eggplant and tomatoes. Additionally, Squash Blossom provides produce to around two dozen local restaurants including Dolina, The Compound, Izanami, Inn of the Anasazi, La Choza, Dr. Field Goods and Il Piatto.
"It's important to start thinking about the way we cook with the seasons and
invite that into our lives to support farmers on a regular basis—make buying from local farmers part of our culture, not just a treat," says Yozell-Epstein. "We have to vote with our dollars if we want to keep farms alive."
Though both Pino and Yozell-Epstein took part in Ruminate's discussion, both admit there's no easy solution to be had.
"Pieces of the puzzle exist," adds Anderson of Ruminate. "But when it comes down to it, it's about connecting those pieces and figuring out how to get customers access to, and buying, the food that we are growing and making."
While these important, and complex, discussions continue to breed new ideas it turns out the best thing you or I can do is the most obvious: commit to spending our food dollars locally. It's healthy for our bodies, healthy for our planet, and healthy for the small businesses that risk a lot to provide for us. So, making eating well (and local) your form of community service and tell every single person you possibly can that they should too.