SAN LUIS– The Acequia Institute (TAI), a San Luis, Colorado-based nonprofit organization, announces a $1.5 million grant award from The Colorado Health Foundation. The Foundation’s core mission is “bringing health in reach for all Coloradans by engaging closely with communities across the state through investing, policy advocacy, learning and capacity building.”
Costilla County suffers from the highest rates of diabetes and obesity in Colorado and every family is affected. The grant seeks to address this health crisis by linking local acequia farmers to a cooperative grocery dedicated to meeting the need for healthier fresh foods that support traditional diets and foodways.
TAI proposes to so by reviving traditional multi-crop farming with native crops like corn, bean, and pumpkin. Project Manager, Devon G. Peña, explains that the “recent shift to alfalfa monocultures has meant we are failing to provide fresh organic produce for local consumption by our own families. Our project takes a ‘dirt-to-gut’ approach to food sovereignty by connecting healthy soils to healthy crops and healthy diets”.
In collaboration with Move Mountains Youth Project, Inc., local youth are being mentored to develop farming skills, embrace their heritage cuisine, and enjoy gainful employment. The curricula and funding for next-generation mentorship will be expanded under this grant under the guidance of TAI Board Member Addie Lucero of Taos Pueblo.
The project’s Community Organizer, Shirley M. Romero Otero, explains how the process “seeks to awaken the cultural memory of the youth and young adults.” This includes the “water democracy of the acequias, our regenerative farming practices, and the mutual aid and self-help traditions of our ancestors.”
The grant will also support the purchase and conversion of the historic R&R Market (established in 1857) into a worker-managed community member grocery and hardware cooperative. The coop market will remain open to the general public but will provide members with benefits like end-of-year rebates.
The building will additionally house an agricultural innovation and incubator center and space for community gatherings, performances, and educational events. The first phase of remodeling is funded and will include upgrading a popular carneceria (meat department) and constructing a small footprint commercial kitchen.
The kitchen will serve multiple purposes including an inhouse local foods café-deli and a volcanic rock corn mill (Molino de Piedra) for the production of non-GMO artisan tortillas. The kitchen and meeting space will also host nutrition and cooking classes led by Indigenous chefs and local community members.
Finally, the commercial kitchen will be used by artisan producers of value-added foods and wildcrafted products that contribute to community health and well-being and increase income for community residents.
To support local producers, TAI is creating an endowment for mutual aid programs featuring a revolving loan and credit fund for local farmers, food processors, and related artisans and entrepreneurs. When established, this program will support food sovereignty incubator projects by providing the startup capital for zero interest loans and shall be governed by the borrowers themselves. Recipients of the no-interest loans will attend financial literacy and small business classes and receive assistance from mentors familiar with local mutual aid traditions and governance.
The Colorado Health Foundation’s award letter explains the significance of the grant: “Support for this initiative will increase food sovereignty and security while strengthening the local agriculture-food system in Costilla County. Local agriculture traditions will be rekindled, the San Luis grocery store will be renovated and expanded, a new commercial kitchen will increase production of local value added foods, and youth will reconnect to the land, acequias, and healthy food while developing skills that will support them to remain in their villages and secure employment.”
Since 2006, The Acequia Institute (TAI) has provided financial and technical support to the environmental and food justice movements and to local acequia farm families in San Luis through tuition scholarships, graduate and certificate fellowships, and direct-to-producer grants among other active programs. TAI operates an acequia farm school and agriculture research and extension service (almunyah) on lands irrigated by the San Luis Peoples Ditch (1852) in the Viejo San Acacio bottom-lands. The entire 181-acre parcel is under a conservation easement in partnership with Colorado Open Lands emphasizing protection of open space, wildlife habitat, and traditional acequia farming practices and crops.
The Acequia Institute acknowledges that the San Luis Valley is within the ancestral homeland territories of the Nuche (Ute), Diné (Navajo), Tiwa (Pueblo), and other first peoples among the 42 tribes with a long historical and living heritage in Colorado.