Desert Southwest Shows Resilience in Feeding Families Amid COVID-19

Roz Brown | Public News Service
A storytelling project in the desert Southwest demonstrated the resiliency of local food production versus reliance on the industrial food system. Photo Credit: Courtesy Michelle Carreon

When a nonprofit food center in the desert Southwest began a project to chronicle challenges of land and water access combined with climate change, they didn’t know COVID-19 was on the way – which demonstrated unexpected resiliency.

The pandemic turned La Semilla Food Center’s storytelling project into a virtual event, but it was nonetheless a place for participants to share their experiences.

Storyteller Mateo Herrera is a chef and the director of a community-based program to preserve the indigenous foodways of the Chihuahuan Desert. He said he wanted to shine a light on local food producers who have fed their neighbors for generations.

“For me it was like our local farmers showing up and being, like, ‘We’re here – and, you know, we’re here to take care of you and we’re here to do our best,'” said Herrera. “They’re the heroes. We wouldn’t have this food if it wasn’t for them.”

The storytelling project included local farmers, backyard gardeners, food producers, chefs, restaurant workers, teachers and artists from Las Cruces to El Paso, including the small and rural towns in between.

Rubi Orozco Santos is the director of storytelling and development for La Semilla Food Center.

She said it helped document how policymakers could create more robust food systems by listening to food growers, who despite drought or low-income levels provided those in need with produce and eggs.

“They redirected produce to families or to food pantries,” said Orozco. “And so there was a nimbleness there that was really a stark contrast to the disruption in the food-supply chain at the grocery store.”

Herrera said although farmers lost sales to restaurants and school districts due to pandemic closures, there were “silver lining” moments that allowed many to reconnect with the land and each other.

“And the beautiful thing about it was, during that time of year the farmers out here and the farms out here were thriving and there was food,” said Herrera. “If you knew where to find it, there was plenty of food available.”

The final report is titled: “Snapshots of Resilience: Tending Land, Sharing Traditions, and Feeding Our Families Before and Amidst COVID-19 Disruptions.