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OP-ED: Travis McKenzie Growing the Future

School Gardens in the South Valley, Agricultural Education and Cultivatingthe Next Generation of Earth Stewards


Mother Earth will survive! It is humans that are at risk of extinction. At times we get caught up in the day-to-day hustle and bustle of our modern era and forget that everything we need to survive comes from the Earth. We must honor and respect her for that. We have been given a sacred responsibility to care for the Earth and create balance and harmony with our natural world and with each other. This is what we try to instill in our young people’s hearts and minds to ensure a healthy future for our people and communities.

I have been a teacher in Albuquerque Public Schools since 2017 and am now honored to be teaching in the Los Padillas community at Polk Middle School in the Valle de Atrisco on the historic Camino Reál. I was brought to the school because of my passion and knowledge of agriculture and years of food justice work. Former Assistant Principal Delilah López reached out to me during the pandemic and asked if I would consider bringing this work to Polk to help with their Jardin de Los Sueños garden initiative. I was interviewed by Principal Ben Bustos, an amazing Chicano from Mora in northern New Mexico. We talked about the importance of implementing agriculture in public schools and discussed our dreams and visions. We talked about authentically representing and reflecting the youth and families the school serves. Often, schools don’t really do that. We have been a Spanish-speaking community for hundreds of years but only recently has the school officially become bilingual.

 

Although our families have been farmers and ranchers for generations, it is also just recently that agriculture has been implemented in our curriculum and on campus. We are fortunate to have students who raise livestock or irrigate with acequias, or help their abuelos in their gardens. We are still connected to the land and will fight to keep it that way. Agricultural education deserves its rightful place as an integral part of what is offered in public schools.

School campuses have the potential and ability to cultivate healthy, nutritious and delicious food for students, families and the community. Our campuses could be transformed to encompass planting seeds, creating edible landscapes and outdoor learning spaces. Imagine if all our schools not only had thriving gardens, but also had classes, curricula and lesson plans that supported earth stewardship and environmental education. At Polk Middle School, we want to lead the way.

 

Unfortunately, for many years, highly processed foods are what students have been provided. They know that something has been wrong with school meals. A student said to me, “Why is all our food in bags?” I thought, why are we not cooking for our children? Why are we not serving high-quality foods from local farmers and ranchers? Why are our kids eating highly processed, high-sugar items for breakfast, and not home-cooked atole, breakfast burritos or fresh fruit grown in our homelands? 

We brought more than 200 students to the 2023 legislative session to learn about government in New Mexico and how they can use their voices to make our state a better place. They learned about bills and how to connect with elected officials. We want to thank state senators Michael Padilla and Leo Jaramillo for sponsoring Senate Bill 4. That bill created Universal Meals, free of charge for students throughout New Mexico. It also made possible the purchase of more locally grown produce to be utilized in school meal programs and advocated for infrastructure that would make it possible for school cafeterias to be able to cook nutritious meals from scratch.

 

We no longer have a school garden. Polk Middle School now has a small school farm! Principal Bustos helped procure a Title 1 grant that allowed us to build three hoop-houses. We contracted with Mudhub Greenhouses for our first hoop-house to serve as a sensory outdoor learning space that can be utilized by all classes. Math teachers can sign up for the space and take students to learn there. Social studies teachers can bring their classes to have a discussion or write in their journals. Language Arts teachers can bring students to read a book, while surrounded by plants.

 

The second and third hoop-houses were built in partnership with the Agri-Cultura Network, Los Jardines Institute and the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP). The students were able to integrate the creation and development of the space into our curriculum. When students are a part of a project, they care more about what they are doing. The second hoop-house will be used for production and hopefully will eventually grow enough food to supply a vegetable bar in our cafeteria. Students will be able to plant, maintain, harvest, process and then eat the food they grow. The third hoop-house will be a propagation station, to grow plant starts. We may also experiment with aquaponics.

Legislative funds have also been utilized to create outdoor learning areas that make it possible for the school to create meaningful, culturally relevant experiences. We built an adobe horno (oven) with the help of Maestro Don Albert Parra and Don Joaquín Luján. It is part of our resolana space. We will invite farmers, ranchers, community members and organizations to speak to the students so they can learn in a way that is culturally connected. Resolanas are more than south-facing walls; they are traditional spaces that encourage community dialogue and help bring hopes and dreams to life!

 

At Valle Vista Elementary, South Valley school, water was running through the acequia when family members were there to pick up their children. One student’s grandfather told us it was the first time in nearly half a century that he had seen water flow onto the campus. Other families walking along the ditch were also happy to see it.

 

Valle Vista also wants to create a community garden and outdoor classroom where students can be nurtured by an orchard and garden while learning biology, culture, history and other subjects. The project was conceptualized as la resolana because that term invokes the need to connect students to the history of the valley: thousands of years of native Pueblo history all the way to the founding of Atrisco in 1692, and more modern history, from 1848 to the present. It will also connect students and teachers to acequia comisionados and mayordomos from the Atrisco and Arenal acequias who can share their work in the community.

Imagine if schools in every district had thriving gardens and farms! We want to be a part of a renaissance that utilizes our rich agrarian history and cultural diversity to help produce not only nutritious food (and health) for our community, but also develop young leaders ready to become the next generation of farmers, ranchers and educators, and continue our legacy of land and water

stewardship in New Mexico.

 

When we think about growing a regional food system, schools need to be in the equation. Schools can develop garden resource teacher positions, garden electives and afterschool programs, or even become STEAM/Agricultural Science magnet schools. We need to work with schools, school boards, districts and state legislatures to prioritize agricultural education in partnership with the community and create and implement statewide acequia and land grant curriculum.

 

We have so much vacant land on our campuses, and our students want to be outdoors. Outdoor learning is the new wave of educational practices that can help lead the way in developing and strengthening our local food systems. We need resources to take students on field trips to local farms, do intercultural exchanges throughout our region, and create more job opportunities and career pathways in agriculture, ranching and earth stewardship.

In pursuing these initiatives, we honor the First Nations, Indigenous people of what we now call New Mexico for passing on cultural knowledge and maintaining a relationship with our sacred Mother Earth. We also honor Chicano communities, the acequieros and acequieras, the farmers and ranchers that have stewarded this land and water for 500 years, as well as all cultures and people that continue this work. In times of climate crisis, historic wildfires, flash floods, extreme droughts and an unstable future, we must all come together to ensure health and wellbeing for ourselves and future generations.

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Travis McKenzie is a Chicano who grew up in the East Mountains. He is a teacher at Polk Middle School, food justice organizer with the Southwest Organizing Project and part of the leadership team of Rooted in Community, a national youth food justice network. McKenzie is the 2023 César Chávez “¡Sí se Puede!” Award winner.

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