“We know that sometimes the policies with the best intentions, if not written correctly, end up serving the systems that are already in place without actually creating any meaningful change. Good intentions can have bad outcomes.” – Krysten Aguilar, La Semilla Director of Operations and Advocacy
Founded eight years ago, La Semilla has been helping the communities of Southern New Mexico and El Paso become healthier and more politically vocal through programs such as Edible Education, Community Farm, Farm Fresh Mobile Markets, and Food Planning and Policy. They are also committed to ensuring that resources are targeted at underserved communities and that those communities are given the flexibility to direct the funds in way that makes their communities self-reliant and sustainable.
“A lot of our focus is really ensuring the flow of resources are going back into the communities and the colonias (unincorporated towns located close to the U.S. and Mexico border) and not just in the urban centers, which is often happening,” said Aguilar.
One of their core organizational goals is looking at the “intersectionality of agency and power” which cut off certain populations from sources to capital – like the young farmers of color who are often at higher risk of losing their livelihood because they do not have access to the same capital necessary to buy farm land with water access.
“The way we address these intersectional issues is by focusing on how the actual policy gets written. The policy should ensure this money isn’t available just to grocery stores or already established larger businesses in these underserved communities, but that this money includes individuals or small businesses in these communities that want to grow food or set up a farm stand. This broadens the scope of who qualifies for Healthy Food Financing loans, while also focusing on this community base and the people and businesses they serve.”
Aguilar acknowledges that the concept of health equity and social capital can be difficult because it “requires people to ask those who typically hold leadership positions to take a step back and make room for new ways of doing things, new definitions of success, and new leaders.”
Though La Semilla was founded as a co-leadership model, it was only recently that all three co-directors were women and women of color. Not only is the model meant to dismantle traditional hierarchical issues by flattening out the organizational structure, it is also designed to cultivate the leadership of the 16 staff members within the organization.
“It’s really important to operate on this model because we need a different system. If you’re talking about equity and changing systems, you must be very intentional about how you operate as an organization. It’s really important to us to practice that,” said Aguilar.
Through a grant from Voices for Healthy Kids, for the last two years, La Semilla expanded their community gardening and education program “La Cosecha,” where community health advocates are trained and given cooking and gardening tools to do outreach in their own personal networks. In the past year, they have increased their impact with a focus on developing capacity and leadership skills with the promotoras who participate in the program.
In the La Cosecha program, participants learn how to tell their stories in order to demonstrate the need for policy change at county commission and city council meetings. This is a critical piece of La Semilla’s work – empowering those who are most impacted to advocate to decision makers about food policies that would be most effective for improving quality of life. At the end of their program, the promotoras lead their own education and outreach projects – a strategy that has already proved successful in their efforts to promote the establishment of a Healthy Food Funding Initiative, which provides financial incentives to bring healthy food to retail settings in underserved neighborhoods.
A Healthy Food Funding Initiative has been a strategic goal for La Semilla because of the far-reaching impact it would have on the communities it serves. The funding would finance revolving and forgivable loans that would fund both the production and selling of healthy foods in the communities. Funds can be used to open new grocery stores, retrofit corner stores, or to help local farmers and producers reach consumers through farm stands and local farmers markets. Not only did the promotoras gather 520 postcards in support of a Healthy Food Funding Initiative in Dona Aña and El Paso counties – a remarkable number for the small community La Semilla serves – they also rallied 25 people to attend the Las Cruces City Council meeting to speak in favor of it. As a result, the city unanimously voted to move forward with drafting and funding a pilot version of a Healthy Food Funding Initiative. “It was a huge win,” said Aguilar.
For others, the win has been more personal. Socorro Linden attended many of the programs and workshops La Semilla has to offer – La Cosecha, the Food and Farm Business Workshop series, and trainings on ancestral health and wellness. Empowered with the knowledge and tools to create her own success, Socorro experimented and perfected a recipe for a healthy vegan buñuelo, a Mexican cookie, and has begun the journey to start her own small business.
“We work from the assumption that our communities have the knowledge, power, and the understanding to create vibrant communities all on their own. The issue isn’t a lack of innovation or a lack of knowledge. The challenge is systemic issues that keep people from accessing resources,” said Aguilar.