Here are two things. Albuquerque’s homeless population is growing. Wander by just about any large park in the city—but especially Coronado Park or Los Altos Park, both situated by their respective freeway on and off ramps—if you want to know some of the truth about The Duke City’s burgeoning homeless situation. These people clearly need our help; besides being homeless and lacking proper health care and sometimes without winter clothing, many of them are also hungry besides.
Before we go any further, here’s the second thing. Albuquerque, a mid-sized city in the high desert, has heaps of local gardeners growing their produce in a variety of places, from small backyards in the far Northeast Heights to large farms in the South Valley to large vacant lots adjacent to Kirtland Air Force Base and the Albuquerque International Sunport.
With all such sources in mind, there’s more than enough food to go around. Using all that produce to help those less fortunate is a natural outcome for a bounty, a veritable cornucopia of food that the rest of us sometimes take for granted.
Realizing these facts and putting some solutions into play seems like a great idea; in fact it is a super-duper idea given the facts of homelessness in this town. It’s an idea that the fine folks over at Food is Free Albuquerque are working to master.
The mission of this local nonprofit is to connect local humans with the abundant harvest that is all around them. With a population of nearly half a million and homes, gardens and farms scattered from one end of the Middle Rio Grande and far up into the Foothills, Food is Free Albuquerque has devised a plan that honors the Earth and uses community action to empower people by providing what they need most. Nutrition is the answer and this group holds the door open to better access, more choices and ultimately, a healthier population that can not only find shelter and agency but can do so with a full belly, too.
Last week, Weekly Alibi met with Erin Garrison, the executive director of Food is Free Albuquerque, Managing Director Trista Teeter and FiF spokesperson Gayle Geis. Through a network of local grower-donors, their team arranges for the harvest of overabundant local fruit trees, gardens and farms for distribution to Albuquerque’s disenfranchised and less fortunate. Here’s a bit of our fact-filled, hunger-conquering conversation about sustainable agriculture, Albuquerque style.
Weekly Alibi: How does Food is Free Albuquerque work?
Erin Garrison: We primarily harvest backyard fruit trees. People from the city contact us if they have a fruit tree or trees that is bearing too much fruit for them to use. We harvest that food and get it plugged back into the community. We do that by through other organizations, including community kitchens and shelters. We work with churches that provide us with volunteers.
How many people are involved in this organization, in this movement?
I’d say we have a solid 30 people at the core of our group.
Is there a specific part of town where your activities are concentrated?
So we harvest all of Albuquerque. We harvest in Rio Rancho and all through the East Mountains, as far East as Moriarty.
How did the project start?
My partner Trista and I were canners. We like to preserve our own food. We had seen a lot of fruit trees around the city. We thought to ourselves, “Maybe people will give this to us [the fruit] and we won’t have to pay for it. We put an ad in Craigslist and we had approximately 10 responses. The first couple of trees we harvested, we had a couple hundred pounds of fruit, apples. We realized then that we had many trees in the city to harvest.
People in this area have been planting apple trees and harvesting the fruit for more than 200 years.
There’s so many apple trees in Albuquerque!
People tell me that there are a lot of apple orchards—some gone wild—in the East Mountains.
Those trees have persisted [for more than 100 years]. There are a lot of them in Albuquerque and the surrounding area.
How did your program expand from that first outing?
We just started giving the food away because we had so much. It was more than our families needed or could handle.
How did you get your name?
Our name comes from an international movement and project that started in Austin, Texas as Front Yard Gardens. We reached out to the director of that organization requesting use of the name Food is Free for our Albuquerque project.
How long did it take to grow the project into a sustainable program that helps people in Burque?
Trista Teeter: We’ve been doing this for five years now on our own. This year, we went full time. Now we’re seeing the fruits of our labor.
What sorts of outreach do you do to community organizations that are concerned with hunger? How do you get fresh food to the people who need it?
We view Food is Free as a very important part of the Albuquerque community. We have a deficit on one hand; we’re one of the five hungriest states in the nation, continually. But on the other side, we have a huge amount of excess. I have a kind of calculated-
That’s 7 tons of food. That’s more than a truckload! Who has access to that food?
Erin Garrison: It’s a lot of truckloads. Our distribution program—because we’re dealing with perishable foods—is definitely still in the development stages. We work with St. Martin’s Hospitality Center often. They’ll cook the food, they’ll freeze it for later use. We call organizations [like St. Martin’s] to see if they can use the food, if so, then how much, we ask. Food banks, kitchens, shelters are our main partners. Three Sisters Kitchen has an excellent program so we donated to them as well. We also work with composters and gardeners to further their projects. We distribute compost to the farmers and gardeners that can use it, too. We try to not waste any food, whether it’s edible or for use feeding farm animals for use as compost. We try to make sure all of the food goes to where it is needed the most. Nothing goes to waste.
What sort produce do you see the most?
It depends on the year. This year it was apples. We had so many apples. Other years, it’s been apricots. It was a quick season for apricots, but that varies from year to year. We never quite know what we’re going to end up with from year to year. We also team up with farmers in the local area—we’ve been working with one area farm for five years now—who have access and can’t pull it all out of the field. So we go out and harvest fields and then donate that produce.
So it sounds like there is a lot of community involvement in your project. How do people get involved?
Our goal this year is to start tree mapping in Albuquerque. If you contact us, we will enter your fruit tree information into our secure database. We’re able to set up a reminder system using the mapping project. If there is a hard frost that year, for example, we can ask participants how their trees are doing. Or we can remind participants that harvest time is coming up.
People have been harvesting fruit trees in New Mexico since the Spanish first brought plums and pears out to The Land of Enchantment in the late 17th century. So mapping those trees and their descendants has significant cultural meaning. Do you ever think about your agricultural legacy in the state?
Absolutely. It really is. There’s a place down in Southeast Heights where the Southwest Organizing Project runs a community garden. That used to be an orchard. Knowing the history of that area and helping revitalize the land is really exciting.
Why is this an important project?
Fresh food is a human right. Everyone deserves access to fresh food. We have seen an abundance in our community, not just with fruit trees, but with community support. We want to empower people with food. Citizens can contact us via email, social media or by telephone to get involved.