Solving the Food System Puzzle | - January 7, 2013

"When you choose to “buy local” ... you are sending a message that good, local, fresh, healthy foods are important to you"

Since 1997, Farm to Table (FTT) has worked to create a robust local food system. However, when Pam Roy and Le Adams created the nonprofit organization, they were not thinking of changing the food system; they just saw a need for children to have the opportunity to taste and eat fresh-picked food and to experience the joy of watching a seed that they planted grow. They also saw a need for everyone, not just folks who could afford to pay two dollars for a tomato, to be able to enjoy the extra flavorful, nutritious and abundant fruits and vegetables grown on nearby farms. 

What they found, as they pursued ways to get these needs met, was that they were looking at the food system—a food system that didn’t work for everyone. Our food system is like a jigsaw puzzle with no picture and about half of the pieces missing. If you have money, a car and live near a city, you can go to the store and buy almost anything you want, year round. That is pretty amazing. But, if you don’t have money or a car, or you live out in the country or in a part of the city without a grocery store, you may not be able to buy food at all. 

If you are a big lettuce grower in California, you can ship your produce all over the world. That part of the puzzle is solved. But if you are a small farmer in northern NM, just getting your product sold and delivered before it spoils is a huge challenge. Another missing piece.

The work of FTT is to get the food system to work for everybody. And that entails finding those missing puzzle pieces and putting them together until the puzzle is solved. It’s an ambitious goal, and no organization can do it alone. So, since 1997, FTT has cultivated partnerships with farmers, eaters, organizations, agencies, public servants and communities. Together with our partners, we have begun to add some of the missing pieces to the puzzle.

How we work

Farm to Table bases its work upon collaboration and empowerment. It is a practical approach. Because we work with partners, everyone benefits from our pooled resources and expertise. For example, in our Farmers Teaching Farmers program, knowledgeable farmers host “Quality Management System Trainings.” During these events there is usually a lot of discussion, as farmers take the opportunity to share what they know. And from within this community of farmers, others will have the opportunity to host events. Instead of creating a small team of “experts,” everyone involved becomes an expert and is asked to spread their expertise throughout their community.

As Tawnya Laveta, our program director says, “It would be a lot easier to solve the puzzle if there was a picture of what it should look like. Sometimes, you come across one by accident, but usually it takes a long time to find those missing pieces.” 

Our work occurs on many levels: from one-on-one assistance to farmers, to providing opportunities for experienced farmers to teach others. From on-farm training sessions to sponsoring several conferences a year, including the Southwest Marketing Conference and the NM Organic Farming Conference with more than 400 attendees. From helping a farmer sell nine pounds of lettuce to a local restaurant, to getting New Mexico apples to 50 schools and school districts serving more than 234,000 students.

We help schools set up gardens and Farm to School educational programs by mentoring key school personnel, providing funds, hosting FoodCorps and AmeriCorps service members as garden managers and nutrition educators, and by working with the National Farm to School Network to successfully advocate for a nationwide Farm to School grant program.

Your actions make a difference

We help community members make a difference by training them how to set up working groups and policy councils that advocate for the health and food—security needs of their communities. We link up those local community leaders so they can make a difference at the state level through the New Mexico Food and Agriculture Policy Council, and we then take their concerns to our national partners and our US Congressional delegation.

Every meeting, every phone call, is one more piece of the puzzle in place, taking us closer to a robust local food system. All this activity is rooted in some basic values. We firmly believe that access to food is a basic human right. As cofounder Le Adams says, “I really believe that we all have a shared responsibility. We have a role to play, so that everyone in our communities has the ability to eat well, to nourish their bodies and care for our planet.”

We also affirm that access to regionally grown, healthy and culturally relevant food is paramount to the well-being and vitality of our communities. As such, our work is centered on investing in New Mexico's’s communities, farmers, children and the environment. Nelsy Domínguez, director of Community Engagement at Farm to Table, sums it up like this, “Food is at the epicenter of our well-being; to know food—fresh, local food—is to cherish ourselves, our families, our communities.” 

What we do know is that you, the community member, the citizen, the eater, are the most important piece of the puzzle. Your actions make a difference. When you choose to “buy local,” whether by eating at a restaurant that purchases from area farmers, purchasing produce from the “local bins” in your grocery store, or frequenting your local farmers’ market, you are sending a message that good, local, fresh, healthy foods are important to you. And that’s a big piece of the puzzle.

Kathleen González is a former Mora County farmer and rancher. She is now communications coordinator at Farm to Table.