Let your garden grow

Hilda Kendall, chief operating officer at The Community Pantry in Gallup, New Mexico, remembers a time when many people in Gallup had a garden growing in their backyards. “You don’t see too much of that anymore,” she said.

The late Jim Harlin, who helped found The Community Pantry — a nonprofit organization that provides food and nutrition programs for people in northwestern New Mexico — wanted to change that.    

“It was his dream to teach people how to grow their food as they had in the past years,” Kendall said.

Because many of The Community Pantry’s clients live in apartments or low-income housing without space for gardening, Harlin wanted to create gardens at The Community Pantry where people could grow their own healthy food and share it with their families.

Harlin’s dream became a reality with The Community Pantry’s Hope Garden, which offers onsite gardening areas that community members can use to cultivate and harvest produce. The Community Pantry also utilizes the Hope Garden to grow fruits and vegetables, providing clients with affordable access to fresh, organic produce, such as apples, carrots, tomatoes and leafy greens.

A primary goal of The Community Pantry’s gardening efforts is to encourage healthy eating for people in Gallup and throughout McKinley County. Of all counties in New Mexico, McKinley County has the highest rate of food insecurity, according to Feeding America’s 2017 Map the Meal Gap report. Alice Perez, executive director of The Community Pantry, said that the area is also considered a food desert because the soil presents significant challenges in growing.

To support The Community Pantry’s nutritional programming, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Mexico (BCBSNM) awarded a $40,000 grant in 2017 to their Growing a Greener World project, which helps educate clients on gardening and healthy eating.

“The Growing a Greener World project is to get people back to the basics of growing their own produce and teaching the next generation to do so, which helps combat the existing epidemic of diabetes in this area,” said Perez.

The Community Pantry provides community members with education in growing, harvesting and preparing food. Perez explained that having the gardens encourages participants to be creative and experiment with nontraditional foods for the area. And some community gardeners have been so successful that they’ve been able to give their excess produce away or sell it at the farmer’s market. 

In addition to helping them expand their community outreach efforts, the BCBSNM grant has allowed The Community Pantry to buy new seeds and introduce a new growing technique using hay bales, which requires less maintenance and results in a higher yield of vegetables.

Through a variety of programs, The Community Pantry helps 3,000 families every month and distributes more than two million pounds of food annually.

Many community members shared how The Community Pantry has impacted their lives. Bambee Sarracino said that she depends on The Community Pantry for fresh produce. Without The Community Pantry, Felissa Kelly said that her children wouldn’t be eating as healthy. Sam Epaloose Jr. brings his 89-year-old mother to The Community Pantry to pick up food. “It helps her a lot,” Epaloose said.

“We are called The Community Pantry for a reason,” said Perez. “We are here for the entire community.”

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