A group of men waiting at the Day Labor Center in Cortez recently began talking about the links between work and food.
Waiting for jobs at the center can be expensive and dispiriting if none are available. But it also proved to be fertile ground for a discussion that led to resourceful problemsolving. When no jobs are available, how will day laborers feed their families? A result of the stark, realistic look into the personal and daunting situation has generated a community project growing from the ground up. The day laborers are founding their own community garden.
The project, Day Labor Enterprise Garden, has garnered enthusiastic support from organizations throughout Monetzuma County; it is the self-made link in the chain that opens accessibility of local healthy food and nutrition, to people of lower income.
Anna Bousquet, manager of the center, says the men hold planning meetings in the mornings. Through an inspired process to help themselves, they have decided a community garden is the most potent use of their labor, and, it provides valuable work they can do when no day jobs are available.
Redefining themselves as a gardening team, they have written a plan, objectives and procedures that include accountability and record-keeping and a client for their produce, a future for their own work. They hope the first recipient of their harvest will be the soup kitchen that serves the homeless people in the community.
They have also identified the need for education, how to build soil, cultivate, water, harvest and, yes, cook the food they grow. By designing their own objectives and goals they have also defined their own curriculum. They also know now what they need to learn and are looking forward to the educational block classes being offered to them, tuition free, through the support of Live Well Montezuma.
Clients will be given instruction and training classes as they earn a gardening certificate. “It’s a chance to give back to the community,” says Kevin Litsue. “We hope to work to help the soup kitchen. Working in the garden backs us up, when there’s no day job.”
At the end of the training and after a season of working in the garden they hope to have developed skills that qualify them to build gardens for others, especially people who want a garden but need physical assistance. Their production and management knowledge will enable them to hire out as a garden enterprise team, a business that will supply work for the garden / landscape team while providing income to support their families.
Live Well Montezuma heard about the work they were doing and offered to collaborate on the project. JoDee Powers, director of LWM, hopes the first season is a success. “If the first step is manageable then the project can grow in the coming years,” she says. “For now, we hope they produce enough to supply the soup kitchens with some produce from the garden and, of course, when day labor families need assistance, the garden can help provide local healthy, affordable vegetables for them.”
The Day Labor Center is a program managed under the umbrella of the Bridge Emergency Shelter where adult men and women can find emergency shelter and a warm meal from October through April. Many of the same people are clients at the Center.
“There is also a socialization component to the garden project,” says Bridge director Sara Wakefield. “It’s character modeling, social interaction with various community members and also builds skills and creates work. Food security and homelessness are linked. A pro-active project like the Day Job Garden lends a lot to the hope and spirit and supports the whole person working in it. It can be a shining star in our community.”
Live Well Montezuma is collaborating to support the day-labor workers who see opportunity in their jobless reality. Powers says, the concept of the day-labor garden fits into “the strategies LWM set to increase afford able, accessible, healthy, nutritious foods for lower income populations and residents of Montezuma County.” The organization sees the project as a long term food enterprise with potential to grow into lifestyle changes that affect choices in healthy eating and active living. According to Powers, “There has been a huge explosion of community interest in this project and how it links to the longer vision for our larger community.”
“This is an agricultural economy,” says Mitchell Toms, president of the Montezuma Community Economic Development Association. “It always has been, and we’re glad about the collaboration bringing the people in these three organizations together to address the issues around food supplies, production, sustainability and nutrition.”
Renewed interest in the Cortez Farmers Market has revived broad-based community access to the local, fresh food available in Montezuma County. Although the day-labor garden workers would like to have a presence at the Farmers Market this year, they first want to build a garden that works for the produce as well as their need to accept day jobs when available. Bousquet says, “There will be some scheduling issues, but the planning they are doing is careful and realistic.”
The Methodist Church has provided the land and water for the garden and initial work has begun. Two of the day laborers are building shelving for spring seedling germination in the back room while conversation every morning at the Day Work Center focuses on the business plan. Cost of goods is built into the funding requests to supply garden materials, pots for seedlings, deer fence and chicken wire, a secure garden door, soaker hoses and seeds, plant selections, seeds, soil amendments and compost piles.
Long-term objectives include the desire to generate sales to the community institutions, which can eventually help pay some of the labor costs and allow the project to become self-sustaining. In the meantime, even cooking is seen as an educational component of the project. Classes will be offered to the day laborers in food preparation, food safety, nutrition and culture and use of spices and herbs. How we cook our food, what we eat and who sits with us at the dinner table embeds human nourishment into the process, gluing the community together.
When Bousquet asked the men to think about what they can do for themselves and their families while they are waiting for work at the center she saw their self images change as they worked through the process.
“We see ourselves as wealthy and generous when we can produce our own food and feed others,” she says. “It is also an education for the community and if volunteers want to help that will also offer respect for the men and the project. Gardening is like a friendly hug…it spreads to the next plot of land and that hug spreads again to the next plot of land.”
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