On Wednesday mornings in Nogales, Arizona, 15 or 20 people convene at the Mariposa Family Learning Center, work boots on, gloves in hand. They’re part of the Nogales Garden Club, a casual, social group of backyard gardeners that convene once a week to talk, eat, share gardening advice, and, as of late, help others with their own backyard gardens.
This is just one project of the Mariposa Community Health Center (MCHC), a nonprofit organization working to increase community health in this border town. In 2012, the health center started a local food system initiative, known as Cosechando Bienestar (translated as Harvesting Wellbeing). While its programs operate only in Santa Cruz County and Nogales, Arizona, some gardening programs attract participants from Mexico and outside Santa Cruz County, said Matthew Fornoff, Food System and Policy Specialist for MCHC.
Cosechando Bienestar “is a collaboration funded by a three-year grant from the USDA Community Food Program. Its purpose is to connect local residents with local food producers to increase the consumption of fresh, healthy foods. The initiative promotes development of a local food system as something key to both health and economic development. Our success will only be as strong as our partnerships,” said Susan Kunz, Chief of the Health and Wellness Department at Mariposa Community Health Center.
MCHC is working with lead partner Avalon Organic Gardens in Tumacácori to provide local residents with training every week at Avalon Gardens through the Community Garden Leaders program. After attending 13 training sessions at Avalon, participants will put their new knowledge and skills to work back to Nogales, working on projects ranging from helping neighbors to install and improve gardens, to working with schools and churches, and communicating food production information through the media. Fornoff said participants range in age from 40 to 60. As of January, 10 individuals had completed the training and started their community outreach projects.
Cosechando Bienestar was also integral in getting the Nogales Farmers’ Market up and running. After about six months of planning, getting community input, and creating an advisory committee, the Mercado officially opened in early April 2013.
“We’ve had about 40 unique vendors sell at the market — everything from farmer-producers to small home businesses and backyard gardeners. As part of the original plan, the Mercado became qualified to accept SNAP benefits, Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program benefits, and Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) Cash Value Vouchers. We’ve been lucky to have strong support from some key vendors who provide high-quality product and who agreed to stick with us every week through the slow start-up months. Now, we’re at a point where we have eight to 10 vendors every week,” Fornoff said.
Customers are primarily Hispanic residents of Nogales. By accepting WIC and SNAP benefits, the Mercado tries to serve lower-income residents while also reaching out to higher-earning people who can help support the vendors, Fornoff said.
Public awareness about the Mercado is continuing to grow and community support seems strong, but they still need people to come out and support the vendors every week, Fornoff said. Interest has slowed down, possibly due to the weather and the holiday-season interruption, as well as the fact that it gets darker earlier—the Mercado runs from 3 to 6 p.m.—giving shoppers a shorter window.
Magdalena Garcia, of Nogales, Sonora, has been particularly active in Cosechando Bienestar programs, selling jamaica flowers and nopales at the Nogales Mercado, participating in the Nogales Garden Club, and taking classes through the Community Garden Leaders project.
“It’s important to me because I like gardening,” she said, adding that some of her interests include planting garlic, corn, and lettuce, and making compost for fruit trees.
As part of their efforts to support access to healthy foods, Cosechando Bienestar also supports entrepreneurial food-related businesses, with Nogales Community Development as the lead partner. They provide business start-up and financial education, as well as small business loans.
Fornoff said MCHC recently started developing a local food policy council to help Nogales become a community that supports residents’ rights and abilities at a policy level to produce their own food, sell that food locally, and improve their individual and community health. The council is working to engage community leaders and stakeholders in facilitated discussions that will lead to the formation of an organized group that can take on this task.
MCHC also sees its work as directly serving the goal of fighting many diet-related diseases facing their constituents—most notably, individuals living with diabetes. With help from consortium partners, MCHC developed a series of educational classes for diabetics. After attending a few of these classes, an individual qualifies for a special “healthier” food box through the Nogales Community Food Bank, Fornoff said.
The local food movement in Nogales is just getting off the ground, Fornoff said. “Before working here, I spent a couple years working in local food projects around Tucson, where these efforts have been going on for decades. In Nogales, to me this seems all brand new—particularly the concepts of local food systems and local food policy,” he said. “It seems the local food ‘movement’ is just reaching Nogales now with this program and a few others, so we’re starting everything pretty much from scratch.” ✜
Mariposa Community Health Center. 1852 N. Mastick Way, Nogales. 520.375.6050. MariposaCHC.net
Jonathon Shacat has covered news and features along the U.S.-Mexico border in both Arizona and Sonora for more than six years.