As we continue focusing on the intersection of food, agriculture and creative placemaking on the blog this month, we thought it would be a great time to check back in with two of our amazing funded projects currently working in this field. The MESA Project in Las Cruces, NM and the Opa-locka Community Development Corporation’s THRIVE Campus project in Opa-locka, FL are both doing incredible work in their communities using food and agriculture to bridge cultural gaps, improve the local economy, cope with environmental and public heath crises, and more.
The MESA Project in particular is acutely focused on creating a sustainable agricultural future for the people of Las Cruces, NM.
“Las Cruces has been an agricultural community for centuries, and even as the area has grown, agriculture has remained the dominant industry and a major part of our area’s culture,” Patrick “Pat” DeSimio-Sophiliazo, Marketing Manager and Project Analyst for the MESA Project, told us. But with an abundance of environmental threats at their doorstep (including water scarcity, topsoil loss and soil salinization), the MESA Project is stepping up to preserve the historic agricultural vitality of the area with a multi-part approach.
The MESA Project’s efforts are split into four parts: free community meals, an experimental farm, agricultural tech manuals and an art gallery exhibit.
“First, the project hosts community ‘MESA Meals’ prepared by local chefs using mainly local ingredients to bring our agricultural community together. Farmers, agricultural scientists, chefs and policy makers all get the chance to come together, learn from each other and plan future work,” Pat explained. “Second, [we] consult with local scientists to produce user-friendly technical manuals about how to implement sustainable agricultural practices… Third, we’re developing Pata Viva Farm as an experimental and educational space for sustainable agriculture. Fourth, we’re working with local, regional and national artists to use the arts to showcase the connections between agriculture and the environment to build awareness and support within and beyond the farming community.”
It’s an extremely thorough initiative which recognizes both the cultural and environmental importance of fostering sustainable agriculture systems. With two well-attended MESA Meals completed already (and a third on the way on April 28, 2018), Las Cruces locals seem enthusiastic about the project’s long term potential.
“People have plenty of enthusiasm and promising ideas for how to address the environmental challenges connected with agriculture in our area,” Pat told us. “As a result of the first two meals, more than 50 farmers, agricultural scientists and chefs are exploring research and business partnerships that can help address our area’s environmental challenges. [These] partnerships include agricultural science research–conducted on working farms with input from farmers–as well as arrangements to cultivate and prepare unconventional drought-tolerant and salt-tolerant crops.”
"Food brings people together, and when people come together, good things happen."
In Opa-locka, Florida, the Opa-locka Community Development Corporation is also working to encourage investment in food and agriculture while dealing with a local crisis of its own. THRIVE (which stands for “Transformative Holistic Resources and Initiatives that Validate and Empower”) was born out of both hope and need. Although the city of Opa-locka recently enjoyed a series of multi-year revitalization efforts, it remains a food desert.
“The entire city of Opa-locka has only two small grocery stores, both of which are discounted and provide limited fresh produce,” Aileen Alon, Director of Arts & Creative Industry for the Opa-locka Community Development Corporation, explained in a recent e-mail interview. “In order to access a grocery store with healthy, fresh produce, residents have to drive outside of the city boundaries. Our residents mostly use public transportation, bicycles or shared vehicles, which means traveling far for healthy food becomes a luxury. The long term result is that many residents suffer from health issues that could be curbed by better eating habits.”
Like the MESA Project, THRIVE is composed of several moving parts (an urban farm, a marketplace/café, and a commercial kitchen) located on one campus. Produce which is grown on the farm will be cooked and prepared in the commercial kitchen and later sold in the marketplace. The THRIVE campus will meld all of these components together to improve access to healthy food (according to Aileen, residents of Opa-locka who are enrolled in the SNAP program will be able to access double their normal amount of fresh produce through THRIVE) while bolstering the economic health of the community.
The THRIVE commercial kitchen will have the capacity to host more than 40 culinary businesses simultaneously. Aileen told us that there’s already a list of caterers and entrepreneurs who are “eagerly awaiting” their chance to utilize the kitchen. “Through the THRIVE campus, not only will we offer fresh food options, but we’ll also help drive economic development for local business owners and the community at large,” Aileen said.
However you look at it, food is at the heart of every community’s physical, cultural and economic health. Improving access to food and implementing systems to enhance the sustainability of local agriculture have proven to be hugely important to the overall health of Las Cruces and Opa-locka.
As you celebrate Thanksgiving this week, keep this final thought from Pat in mind: “Food brings people together, and when people come together, good things happen.”
Kayla Goggin is a freelance writer working for ArtPlace America. She can be reached at gogginkayla [at] yahoo.com.