Rodrigo Rodriguez personally understands the stakes of Albuquerque, New Mexico’s longstanding problem with youth homelessness and police violence. He grew up in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods ― the International District, once known as the “War Zone” ― and says that as a young person, he spent time on the streets, on parole and on probation.
That was before Rodriguez co-founded Project Feed The Hood at the SouthWest Organizing Project, a decades-old community organization that has long focused on environmental and social justice. After joining SWOP as a youth intern about a decade ago, Rodriguez went on to become a role model for kids with backgrounds like his, using food justice and restorative justice to help them nurture their talents, gain confidence and learn leadership skills through community gardening.
“Albuquerque right now is experiencing a historic crime wave, and the International District is part of the epicenter of that. So we’re dealing with kids going through a lot, we’re dealing with communities going through a lot,” Rodriguez told HuffPost. “We know that punitive approaches to dealing with our young people are ineffective, and we know that putting black and brown kids into the system is a detriment to not only to them, but to the community.”
Project Feed The Hood is designed to motivate and engage struggling kids and their families ― a pilot in one school offers students time in the school garden as an alternative to in-school suspension.
But the initiative is simultaneously addressing an even more basic need: More than half the students in Albuquerque Public Schools qualify for free and reduced lunch, and many of them are hungry. According to Feeding America’s “Map The Meal Gap 2017,” New Mexico is tied with Arkansas, and behind only Mississippi, for the worst childhood food insecurity in the country. Meanwhile, Census data from 2014 showed New Mexico with the highest child poverty rate in the nation.
“The massive elephant in the room is we have all these hungry kids,” Rodriguez said.
So Project Feed The Hood organizers are seeking legislation at the state level that would give school districts money to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers ― in turn giving back to the local economy. They’re also partnering with schools and parents for innovative programs like after-school “homework diners,” planning a new agro-ecology project inspired by agrarian movements in Brazil and other parts of the world, and hiring a crop of young interns every year.
“We call it Project Feed The Hood because that’s what we’re trying to do: We literally see the need in the community that people are hungry, and how do we get the food to the people?” Rodriguez explained. “What we’re really trying to do is empower folks in the community to not only access those resources, but to get more support into the schools to really build up not just a culture of health, but also a culture where we don’t have hungry children.”
Read Rodriguez’s interview about Project Feed The Hood’s work below.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired you to start Project Feed The Hood? How long ago was that?
2009 was when we officially started Feed The Hood here at SWOP, but before that, my co-founder Travis and I had been working together doing school gardens and working with a mentor in Taos who runs the seed library on a big organic farm.
We had this opportunity to start a community garden ... and it started off talking about food access ― like, really basic stuff in the schools ― working with kids in the schools, working in gardens, talking with families. And then you start peeling back these layers, and you find out that 1 in 3 kids in New Mexico isn’t getting enough to eat. So it’s a pretty stark reality that folks live here in New Mexico. We really do have this great disparity in the haves and have-nots.
You have eight pilot projects in different schools. How did that come about? Was this project always tied to restorative justice and finding an alternative to in-school suspension?
It’s specifically at Van Buren Middle School where we started looking at implementing the new restorative justice principles that were adopted by the district, and that came out of youth organization that happened here. We convinced the principal, who was super supportive ― an amazing lady who let us kind of do whatever we wanted and needed to do. So we just started taking the kids from in-school suspension out into the gardens instead of sitting in the rooms with their heads kind of buried in the cubicles. [We said] come outside, let’s talk about what happened, do some farming.
With our seed library and all the kinds of work we’ve done over the years, there is this regenerative principle. We’re pushing back on an agricultural industry … and all these extractive industries that take our resources. So pushing back on that, we want to build economies that are restorative, that are regenerative. Instead of punishing kids, let’s work with them.
Do you have any stories or anecdotes about how this project has helped change kids’ lives or kept them focused on finishing school?
It’s changed all of our lives. Since we started in 2009, we have folks that came through our program ― one young lady at USC, she’s doing her Ph.D. studying food systems. We have folks who are just graduating, we have kids who started with us in elementary school and are now in high school. So they’ve gone basically their entire school career having garden and food education as an integral part of their schools, with guidance from people who look like them ― young brown folks who grew up in these neighborhoods and went to those same schools. That’s how we try to work at SWOP … really focusing on leadership development, building folks up from the inside and really giving folks agency to make a change in their own community.
This year we’ve been working with the refugee community; New Mexico has always been a refugee resettlement community, so we work with a lot of folks in the International District. There’s a lot of folks from Vietnam, Cambodia, and a more recent wave is folks from Africa and Middle Eastern countries. So we’ve been taking them to the farms and showing them different things and learning from them, learning different styles of planting. Those kids, you really see they change when they get out to the farm. It’s a whole different vibe; it’s amazing.
What is the accomplishment you’re most proud of since you started Project Feed The Hood?
We’ve put a lot of resources in the community. We’ve hired a lot of folks, a lot of young people. Wherever we can, we hustle money, we pay farmers, we pay artists, we’re really trying to figure out how we build up a localized economy ― and what that means for us, in terms of food work, is how we build food sovereignty so folks have control over the food system, the food that they eat, and that it’s a holistic, restorative practice.
I think through the years, we ran some numbers and it’s just kind of ballpark, but we’ve hired around 100 interns and we always pay at least $10 an hour. That’s part of how we try to do our work. We try to build up young people and then give them the keys to whatever they’re passionate about, and that’s exactly what happened with Project Feed The Hood.
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- This article originally appeared on HuffPost.