Ciudad Nueva exists to cultivate hope and empowerment for residents in our Rio Grande neighborhood. Our goal is to walk alongside members and help them find the tools they need to make their communities, their families, and their own lives better.
There are times when outside help is necessary, particularly in crisis situations. However, we have learned over the years that finding solutions from within the community actually has a deeper, wider impact. And it serves to strengthen the group as a whole. Strengthening the local community is what we strive for in all our programs.
One of our most successful endeavors has been our community-run food co-op. A couple of years ago, two of our staff members visited East Central Ministries in Albuquerque, New Mexico, because we heard about the food co-op they had been operating since 2001. Armed with lots of great ideas and a vision for a member-driven model, we started our co-op with just a few families.
The program now serves 20-30 families per week on Wednesday and Thursday evenings. The donated food, provided by local markets and by Starbucks, is close to expiration, so the first job of all members is to help sort through the donations and discard anything that is truly inedible.
The rest of the produce that would have been discarded by the markets anyway but is fully usable by our co-op members is divided up among members during the two distributions on Wednesday and Thursday.
Good for the community, good for the environment
Although Ciudad Nueva sponsors the program, the community-run food co-op is managed entirely by its members. They decide how it will operate and what they want to do with everything that is donated. Co-op members wash, sort, and package the food, organize the distribution, and also clean up after the co-op meetings are over.
Unlike a food pantry, which is a hand-out program and also mainly provides canned or pantry items, the food co-op is a community-driven program and provides fresh produce like chile, tomato, onion, squash, and fruit to enrich the diets of our members. Each community member does work to make the co-op happen so they can take pride in the results; it is not a hand out. We all work together to get this food that would otherwise be thrown away.
Nothing goes to waste in our food co-op. Even the small portion of the donated produce that is deemed inedible is taken to our partner program, Mustard Seed Cafe, to be turned into compost.
Community members have also decided to prepare one or two extra baskets of food every week and deliver them to a community member who is elderly or too sick to come to the food co-op meeting themselves. In that way, the co-op itself becomes a community participant and members are always looking for ways they can help their neighbors.
Finding resources within the community
Recently one of our longtime community participants took over running the food co-op program. Tamy lives in our neighborhood and her own kids have been involved in Ciudad Nueva’s after-school programs for almost ten years. Tamy has been in the community for a long time so she knows the people in the neighborhood and is able to draw on her deep connections.
Even the kids get involved. During the school year they look forward to visiting the co-op on Wednesdays and Thursdays where they will enjoy a sandwich and milk before helping carry in boxes and unpack the produce.
Some of our retired community members also find joy in participating in the food co-op every week. It gets them out of the house and provides an avenue for them to interact with their community and to contribute in a meaningful way.
An opportunity to share and learn
About once a month, we do some type of community learning. The idea for this came from community members asking for information about immigration issues. It was their idea to include this series of classes along with the food distribution, providing an opportunity for learning and fellowship together. On those evenings, sweet rolls donated by Starbucks provide the refreshments while we learn and grow together.
The community learning topics are directed by the co-op members as well. They tell us what they want to know more about, and Tamy helps coordinate the speakers. Some of the topics have included knowing your rights in immigration and how to communicate with teenagers.
Partnership, not provision
It is not always a clear and simple path to create a fully community-run program. We are constantly searching for balance and working hard to be partners with our neighbors. As we see our neighbors take ownership of programs like the community-run food co-op, we know we are on the right track towards a partnership rather than a hand out. We hope to affirm the rich and diverse resources already present within our neighbors and celebrate the many things, like the food co-op, that we can do when we all work together.