Harvesting health and hope through farmer-health care cooperation

Hundreds of families in Albuquerque receive fresh veggies through a unique partnership between a farmers cooperative and a health system.

“The South Valley has a long history as a farming culture and I look at these gardening classes as producing the next generation of farmers” — Helga Garcia-Garza, co-director of the Agri-Cultura Cooperative Network. (Presbyterian Healthcare Services)

by Amber Hansen

La Cosecha — “the harvest” in Spanish — was born out of the desire of farmers to keep the produce they grew within their community, serving their neighbors and the families who lacked access to local organic fruits and vegetables.

La Cosecha is a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program started by the Agri-Cultura Cooperative Network, a farmers cooperative based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Like other CSA programs, La Cosecha offers its members the opportunity to invest in local farms and receive a share of the harvest — weekly boxes of organic produce — in return.

What sets this program apart is its strong partnership with Presbyterian Healthcare Services, a nonprofit health care system with eight hospitals and 13 primary care clinics, which has served New Mexico since 1908. This collaboration makes a clear connection between health care and healthy food by bringing fresh produce to some of the most underserved communities in the South Valley and the International District.

The CSA has grown into a multi-sector partnership that serves 350 families, improves community health and food security, and provides some of the participating farmers with 62 percent of their income.

Red Tractor Farm: “People come to our farm and see what is produced and watch it throughout the season. They can relate vegetables more to their season and how everything is actually grown.” (Healthy Here PR at CWA Communications) Pictured: Dory Wegrzyn, Emma Ambos, and Casey Holland.
Five generations of the Baca family have farmed in the South Valley of New Mexico. (Healthy Here PR at CWA Communications)
Andrew Valverde, nephew of farm manager Joseph Alfaro picks carrots at Valle Encantado Farms (Healthy Here PR at CWA Communications)
“In New Mexico, many families experience food insecurity,” says Leigh Caswell, director of Presbyterian’s Center for Community Health. “At Presbyterian, it is our purpose to improve the health of the patients, members, and communities we serve. Part of this mission is help members of our community who face barriers in accessing basic support needed for good health.”

Albuquerque is the largest city in Central New Mexico, but despite the predominantly urban setting, there are still many areas with limited access to grocery stores and a lack of affordable produce.

New Mexico has a higher-than-average rate of food insecurity, especially among children: One in three children is food insecure.

Nearly a quarter of the population of Bernalillo County, which includes Albuquerque, has low food access, resulting in a food insecurity rate of 15.8 percent. Three in four adults report inadequate fruit and vegetable intake. These factors contribute to the rates of chronic disease in the county. Among adults, 23.3 percent are diagnosed with high blood pressure and 6.2 percent with Type 2 diabetes.

These charts illustrate food insecurity, income, and other social determinants of health based on a Community Health Needs Assessment conducted for the area.

It was clear to Caswell that there was a natural connection between the health system and the CSA, which had been formed by the farmers with the intent of building community health and resilience.

The Center for Community Health organizes Presbyterian’s efforts to address the health needs of underserved populations through funding, programmatic support, and cross-sector collaborations.

Xion Bass and Natalie Alfaro wash produce. They are part of the quality control team for the Agri-Cultura Cooperative Network. (Healthy Here PR at CWA Communications)

Since 2013, Presbyterian (along with other organizations) has subsidized the CSA shares, as well as completely covering the shares for 40 families to ensure that the CSA is affordable for low-income families without jeopardizing the ability of the farmers and farmworkers to earn a fair wage.

Joseph Alaro from Valle Encantado Farms. (Healthy Here PR at CWA Communications)
“It helps by bringing great nutrition and reducing the risk of diabetes and blood pressure…even hunger. We’re also trying to revitalize our area one turnip at a time”, says Joseph Alaro from Valle Encantado Farms.

The program primarily serves low-income, native Spanish speakers living in the South Valley and the International District of Albuquerque. Eligible participants include families or individuals who self-report as low-income and meet the income eligibility guidelines for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The formation of the Healthy Here Initiative in 2014 furthered the partnership between Presbyterian and Agri-Cultura. Healthy Here, with funding from the CDC REACH Cooperative Agreement, links several sectors of the local food system to increase health in priority communities — those with high rates of poverty, low educational attainment, and high percentages of Native American and Hispanic residents.

Casey Holland and Emma Ramos at Red Tractor Farms. (Healthy Here PR at CWA Communications)
“Presbyterian has been there at the table as we determine how to best to serve the community’s needs,” says Helga Garcia-Garza, co-director of the Agri-Cultura Cooperative Network. “We are developing a secure food system. The food is grown here, and stays here, and that has a big impact economically as well as on the health of our communities.”

From June through October, La Cosecha participants receive weekly boxes of locally grown, organic produce. Shares feed a four to six people and can be purchased with SNAP benefits. Full-pay shares cost $30 a week. Subsidized-pay shares are $6 per week. And participants can purchase half shares (both full-pay and subsidized-pay) for half price.

In addition to Presbyterian, 12 other partner organizations serve as weekly distribution sites for the CSA. Each partner has different ways of identifying and engaging CSA participants.

Participants can pick up their shares at two of Presbyterian’s clinics. Pictured: South Valley Economic Development Center, another distribution site. (Healthy Here PR at CWA Communications)

Many of Presbyterian’s participants are referred through the Wellness Referral Center (WRC) and can pick up at two of Presbyterian’s clinics. Operated by the Adelante Development Center, the WRC, serves Presbyterian Medical Group clinics as well as eight other clinics in Bernalillo County. The center receives referrals from health care providers for patients with chronic health conditions like diabetes and heart disease, then connects them to relevant community-based programs and education on chronic disease prevention and management.

Participating in the CSA has helped some members make lifestyle changes.

Produce ready to be distributed to CSA members. (Healthy Here PR at CWA Communications)

“We are eating healthier and cooking more — we stopped eating fast food,” says one participant in the program.

“Eating better made me want to exercise more, eating in season just feels better,” another says.

La Cosecha also includes an education component, and each week the CSA shares are accompanied by a bilingual (Spanish/English) nutrition education handout that includes information about the farms, as well as nutrition tips, kid-friendly recipes, and storage tips for that week’s produce.

In addition, there are twice monthly in-person nutrition education sessions that include healthy cooking demos taught in both Spanish and English. Presbyterian sponsors the nutrition education, and one of their nutritionists helps to develop content and teach classes along with La Cosecha staff and other health practitioners.

Receiving weekly bags of affordable, fresh, local fruits and vegetables — along with culturally relevant recipes and nutrition education — has participants excited about cooking and eating in new ways that benefit their health.

Elijah Alfaro admires freshly picked carrots at Valle Encantado Farm. (Healthy Here PR at CWA Communications)

“Before, we rarely even kept fresh produce in the house…it has opened up my world to an entirely different way of eating and preparing food,” says one La Cosecha participant..

“I feel healthier and have more energy, and my family as well,” says another participant. “I have taught my grandchildren to eat healthier.”

La Cosecha’s program goals are twofold: increasing access to healthy food while also improving the economic situation of local farmers. The partnership between Presbyterian and Agri-Cultura is particularly effective in improving community health because it strengthens existing community-driven work and incorporates healthy, local food in health care delivery.

Amber Hansen is the Southwest Program Coordinator for Health Care Without Harm’s Healthy Food in Health Care Program.
Learn more about Healthy Food in Health Care.