Growing Naco

The Naco Wellness Initiative is seeding healthy change in this border community.

September 9, 2016

GleaningsIssue 20: September/October 2016

In Naco, Sonora, seeds sprout in unexpected places—from empty mop buckets, old stove pots, worn rubber tires. Backyards fill with scattered fruit trees, right-angled drip irrigation lines, and pyramids of piled compost. When the Naco Wellness Initiative (NWI) began in 2004, “There wasn’t a whole lot of gardening going on in the community,” says Tom Carlson, NWI’s president.

NWI began as a diabetes prevention service, offering health and wellness services to Naco communities on both sides of the border. “When the fence was built in earnest in 2007, that basically stopped it,” says Carlson. He came to Naco in 2003, after retiring in Bisbee. Eventually, NWI built a brick-and-mortar clinic that could be open five days a week. Today, Carlson and a dozen staff members run two walk-in clinics in town and teach classes on diabetes prevention and wellness. In 2015, they counted 10,000 service visits.

“We want to get folks to pay attention to wellness—to catch things before they get out of control,” Carlson says. Recognizing that prevention begins with diet and that, in this town of 6,400 with unemployment as high as 70 percent, many clients didn’t have access to the foods that create a healthy diet, NWI launched a Community Gardens Harvest for Health Project in 2012.

“It was clear we had to do something to help people not to have to go to the store,” says NWI’s garden program director, Maria Elena Borquez. “Because they can’t afford [fresh food] there. Now, they’re experiencing the joy of eating something that grows, that comes out of the ground.”

Borquez has helped build and maintain more than 50 gardens throughout the community. To receive the support of NWI, individuals and families come to monthly classes about organic gardening for nine months. Twenty-two families graduated from the program in July, receiving seeds and drip irrigation supplies from NWI to start their own gardens at home.

From left: Dora Grijalva, Lupita Sanchez, Tom Carlson, and Maria Elena Borquez, at the Jardín de Casa Hogar.

From left: Dora Grijalva, Lupita Sanchez, Tom Carlson, and Maria Elena Borquez, at the Jardín de Casa Hogar.

NWI is also working to build school and community gardens. “We’ve started a community garden for kids, so that the kids learn what it means to work on something as a community,” Borquez says. “We’ve turned a lot of attention to kids. That’s where the habits start,” Carlson says. In early 2016, a garden was just beginning to sprout at CEME, the Centro de Educación Multiple Especial, an elementary school for kids with disabilities. “Gardening helps them develop a skill,” says Borquez. Teachers at CEME are trained in how to incorporate the garden into their lesson plans, and the CEME principal, Samantha Maldonado, says that the students love working in the garden, putting their lessons into practice.

At Casa Hogar, Naco’s orphanage, a greenhouse made from recycled material remains a warm 65 degrees in March. Inside, old rubber tires filled with soil line the edges. The tires capture the heat of the sun during the day and release it at night. This is one of three greenhouses built and maintained by NWI. Seed starts are distributed to gardeners enrolled in the monthly classes.

Lorena Cuevas enrolled in the gardening program last year. She’d gardened before, but not organically. Now, she’s learned how to turn compost and work with drip irrigation. In a long garden plot outside her home, she’s growing pumpkin, corn, tomatoes, chiles. “We had been cooking with vegetables before, but we bought them in the store. Now I’ll have a store in my house,” she says.

Eventually, Borquez would like to create a market where gardeners can bring excess produce to sell to their community. “But first, we have to train more gardeners,” she says.

Soon, Carlson will turn the program over to Borquez and Lupita Sanchez, director of community services, who will become NWI’s co-directors. Carlson says one of the strongest outcomes of their program is the network that’s being created. “People are setting up gardening classes in their own homes,” he says. “We’re creating a network of knowledge. This makes Naco a more resilient community.”

Megan Kimble is the editor of Edible Baja Arizona.

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