Silver City's new Commons Center for Food Security and Sustainability harvests a community's hopes and ideas.
by Sharman Apt Russell
"The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams."
— Eleanor Roosevelt
A dream begins as what? A thought or idea — synapses snapping, neurons firing in the brain. An emotion — a sorrow, a conviction, a growing excitement. An image! A woman weeding a garden. A basket of vegetables: purple eggplant, red tomatoes, white onion. Perhaps the dream includes the smell of a home-cooked meal. Tamales. Lasagna. Or fresh herbs. Lavender. Rosemary. Perhaps there is the sound of rain. Or pots clattering in a kitchen.
Silver City’s new Commons Center for
Food Security and Sustainability.
The dream of Silver City's new Commons Center for Food Security and Sustainability began, prosaically, in the mission statement of the nonprofit The Volunteer Center (TVC), which reads: "To mobilize the volunteer human resources in Grant County to meet the needs of the community." The work of TVC focuses on issues of hunger and poverty and includes the Grant County Community Food Pantry, which distributes roughly 4,000 pounds of food a month; mobile food pantries that serve over 200 families in surrounding areas like Gila and Hurley; eight community and school gardens; the promotion of locally grown food; the Alimento para el Nino weekend backpack program, which gives out nutritious snacks to over 350 hungry kids in the Cobre and Silver school districts; and a variety of services for seniors such as building wheelchair ramps, facilitating other federal programs, and delivering prepared frozen meals.
According to the USDA, an estimated 14.5% of American households were food insecure some time during 2012. In New Mexico, one in six seniors go hungry at some time in the year, as do and one in four children.
Food insecurity is eating dry cereal two days in a row and waiting anxiously for the free school breakfast on Monday morning. Food insecurity is dreading the questions your daughter will ask about dinner tonight. Food insecurity is a sense of shame at the sight of empty kitchen cupboards. Food insecurity is choosing the most caloric "bang for your buck": 10 boxes of macaroni over 10 apples or a fast-food hamburger over a fresh salad. Food insecurity is not always knowing when or where your next meal will be.
Unsurprisingly, food insecurity is also linked to high rates of ill health, including obesity and diabetes. Importantly, the goal of The Volunteer Center is not simply to provide more food to its clients but to give them more access to healthy and nutritious food.
"Food has just become something we consume," says Alicia Edwards, executive director of TVC, "like putting gas in a car. But as we look at hunger in Grant County, we also have to ask questions about people's relationship to food. Where do we get our food? What's in it? Do we have the time and knowledge to prepare nutritious food? To grow it? Is the food we eat making us feel better and healthier?"
The goal — the dream — of The Volunteer Center is to help people forge new relationships to food, to support a local economy with meaningful work centered around food, and to empower people to find their own creative solutions to hunger and poverty.
This kind of dreaming requires patience. Five years ago, The Volunteer Center was given funds to create a physical space for its programs, including the Grant County Food Pantry, offices for staff, a commercial kitchen, and enough land for gardens. The location had to be just right — good soil, parking spaces on the street, a centrally located neighborhood, and an affordable price. An architect was chosen, and days and nights spent by the executive director, staff and board of The Volunteer Center looking at plans and drawings. What statement should this new building make to the public? How to fit in classrooms? How to heat and cool this space?
The Volunteer Center will hold its 5th Annual Hunger for Knowledge fundraising dinner on Nov. 6. Sponsored by TVC and WNMU students in Emma Bailey's "Social Inequality and Sociology of Food" courses, the dinner will be held at the new Commons Center for Food Security and Sustainability, 501 E. 13th in Silver City, 5-7 p.m. Tickets are $15 with all proceeds going to The Volunteer Center of Grant County. Call the WNMU Social Science Department , (575) 538-6634, for reservations.
Finally, in 2012, construction started: the noise of hammers and machinery, cranes lifting hundreds of pounds into the air. To reduce costs, volunteers did much of the clean-up and almost all the finish work. Ranging in age from seniors to the Wellness Coalition's Youth Conservation Corps crew, they painted and caulked. They cleaned windows. They put in baseboards. They laid down brick for a patio. They sculpted mud into a horno or outside adobe oven.
This was hardly a simple building project. This was a vision kept most fiercely alive by executive director Alicia Edwards, as well as by every staff and board member, volunteer and recipient who had ever come to The Volunteer Center for help and sustenance, a vision sustained by hundreds — thousands — of people here in Grant County.
This was a dream of sustainability. The Commons Center is energy-efficient, sited to get optimum sunlight through its large double-paned windows and garage doors, with high-R-value insulation, radiant heat in the floor, and a steeply angled "butterfly" roof designed to catch rainwater. Eventually the surrounding compound of gardens, orchards and greenhouses will use and demonstrate integrated and organic systems of permaculture. Vegetables can be picked fresh and distributed at the food pantry, with herbs plucked and used in the cooking classes, while compost from the Center's commercial kitchen goes back outside to feed the soil.
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