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 Jan 25 - 31, 2018 
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Food Interview

Travis McKenzie Brings Gardens to APS

The Teacher of the Year hopes for more growth, bigger food budgets

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Travis McKenzie and his Van Buren Middle School students in their garden
Travis McKenzie and his Van Buren Middle School students in their garden
Travis McKenzie is just dismissing his students from the computer lab when I meet him at Van Buren Middle School. One of the students, a boy who must be 14 or 15, is dressed in fatigues. I don’t know if this is because of a ROTC class or just because he likes the look. Something about his untucked shirt and big, curly hair makes me think more of a resistance fighter than a soldier, though. He bumps fists with McKenzie on the way out the door.

After all his students leave, we head into McKenzie’s classroom to chat about a topic near and dear to his heart: gardens. From the window I can see some of the raised beds that he’s built with his students out in the empty courtyard—nothing is growing in there now since it’s January, of course. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t busy still. Or, as he would say, “we’re busy.” It’s not always clear who McKenzie is referring to when he says “we,” but it’s likely one of the dozen or so agricultural or community organizations he works with. Or, possibly, it’s just that he’s uncomfortable taking full credit for all the things he’s done.

What he’s excited about today is bringing his students up to Santa Fe on the following Tuesday—it’s Food and Farms Day at the roundhouse, an event where local farmers and ranchers are honored by the state. It’s also when McKenzie will be receiving his Teacher of the Year Award from Farm to Table New Mexico, a nonprofit organization that brings together local farmers and the people who need their produce the most through marketing, policy development and community events. McKenzie wants his students to accept the award with him because, as he says, “none of this would happen without them.” He shows me a printed “Roundhouse Scavenger Hunt” sheet that he’s giving to all of them. He’s asking them to form groups to find out who their representative is and then come up with a food- or farm-related question to ask them. “They’re learning about government in their social studies class, but I can reinforce it with the stuff we’re doing here,” he says. “Which is good because sometimes when we teach government in schools it’s not relatable. This is like, direct.”

The reasons McKenzie is getting this Teacher of the Year award are myriad. Over the years, he’s worked with many nonprofit organizations to educate young people about food and farming with after school programs, summer camps and field trips. When he worked at the Cornelio Candelaria Organic Farm in the South Valley, he had students come from Amy Biehl High School to work on their senior projects or complete service hours at the farm. “So I would facilitate educational programing for about 1,000 kids a year who came through our farm” he says. Then he worked with the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), where he helped eight schools in the International District organize teams to build gardens on their campuses. It was important to have a team of people to support the garden, he says, because “there’s something we call ‘one teacher wonder’ syndrome—usually a school garden is sponsored and supported by one teacher. And if that one teacher leaves, often that garden will leave too.”

Right now, McKenzie has a policy-making mission on his horizon. “House Bill 62!” he shouts as he shuffles around some papers on his desk. He brings me the text of the proposed bill, which, if signed into law, would provide $400,000 for the public education department to buy New Mexico-grown fruits and vegetables for its public schools, charter schools and juvenile detention centers. “You know, when you think about it, it sounds like a lot of money, but $400,000 spread out among every school district in New Mexico …” he shrugs. “But it’s a start. We’re trying to work our way up to a million.”

McKenzie has recently been working in a more official educational capacity as a teacher for Albuquerque Public Schools. Since Aug. 2017 he’s been teaching a gardening elective at Van Buren, a class where students can spend time outdoors, build something together, plant and harvest food, and learn about the culture and history of the crops. As he takes me to see the half acre of land right off Louisiana Street that he and his students have cultivated, McKenzie tells me about what they’ve grown so far. “These collards have grown all through the cold, and some of this green lettuce is still sticking around too.” He sticks his hands into the soil of one of the rows and breaks it up between his fingers. “Look at that color,” he says admiringly. It’s dark and soft: signs of good, healthy earth. “And we’ve only watered once so far this year.” There’s also a half dozen fruit trees, a semi-circle of benches that make up the outdoor classroom and a “pollinator sanctuary”: flowering plants that will attract bees and hummingbirds in the spring. All this was planted and tended by middle schoolers.

The students that McKenzie teaches are a racially diverse group, but most of them come from poor families. “In our community here, food security is a huge issue,” he tells me. “I don’t really like to call it a food desert, because a desert is a natural environment. There’s life in the desert, there’s balance. We’re trying to evolve people’s vocabulary—this is a food apartheid, really. This is an oppressive force. It’s not nature that did this.” McKenzie hopes that by teaching young people the skills they need to grow their own food, he can help alleviate some of the systemic hunger and poverty that are such huge problems in our state.

On my way out from the school I swing by the empty northern lot where McKenzie tells me he hopes to develop a wilder, less cultivated garden later this year. Right now it’s all pale, dry dirt that would need some tilling and water before it could grow anything. Except for right in the middle of the lot, where he’s planted an Asian pear tree—in tribute, he says, to Masanobu Fukuoka, the Japanese farmer and author of The One Straw Revolution. In the book, Fukuoka outlines a radical form of farming that involves very little intervention in the crops’ natural way of growing. By letting things grow and go to seed and die, the soil will become richer and will grow things more easily in the future, goes the ideology. It’s difficult to look at the dry desert soil and see the potential for lush growth, but it’s a vision that McKenzie believes in. And he has a history of turning his vision into reality..


 
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