“The massive elephant in the room is we have all these hungry kids.”
Rodrigo Rodriguez personally understands the stakes of Albuquerque, New Mexico’s longstanding problem with youth homelessness and police violence. He grew up in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods ― the International District, once known as the “War Zone” ― and says that as a young person, he spent time on the streets, on parole and on probation.
That was before Rodriguez co-founded Project Feed The Hood at the SouthWest Organizing Project, a decades-old community organization that has long focused on environmental and social justice. After joining SWOP as a youth intern about a decade ago, Rodriguez went on to become a role model for kids with backgrounds like his, using food justice and restorative justice to help them nurture their talents, gain confidence and learn leadership skills through community gardening.
“Albuquerque right now is experiencing a historic crime wave, and the International District is part of the epicenter of that. So we’re dealing with kids going through a lot, we’re dealing with communities going through a lot,” Rodriguez told HuffPost. “We know that punitive approaches to dealing with our young people are ineffective, and we know that putting black and brown kids into the system is a detriment to not only to them, but to the community.”
Project Feed The Hood is designed to motivate and engage struggling kids and their families ― a pilot in one school offers students time in the school garden as an alternative to in-school suspension.
But the initiative is simultaneously addressing an even more basic need: More than half the students in Albuquerque Public Schools qualify for free and reduced lunch, and many of them are hungry. According to Feeding America’s “Map The Meal Gap 2017,” New Mexico is tied with Arkansas, and behind only Mississippi, for the worst childhood food insecurity in the country. Meanwhile, Census data from 2014 showed New Mexico with the highest child poverty rate in the nation.
“The massive elephant in the room is we have all these hungry kids,” Rodriguez said.
So Project Feed The Hood organizers are seeking legislation at the state level that would give school districts money to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers ― in turn giving back to the local economy. They’re also partnering with schools and parents for innovative programs like after-school “homework diners,” planning a new agro-ecology project inspired by agrarian movements in Brazil and other parts of the world, and hiring a crop of young interns every year.
“We call it Project Feed The Hood because that’s what we’re trying to do: We literally see the need in the community that people are hungry, and how do we get the food to the people?” Rodriguez explained. “What we’re really trying to do is empower folks in the community to not only access those resources, but to get more support into the schools to really build up not just a culture of health, but also a culture where we don’t have hungry children.”