Pine River Shares aims to build a food-secure region

Wednesday, May 30, 2018 2:35 PM
Susan Fischer, a volunteer with Pine River Shares, talks about vegetables to children in the Bayfield Early Education Program as another volunteer, Sara Grover, serves cauliflower. Hundreds of children go through Pine River Shares food-exploration classes in Bayfield and Ignacio. It helps them learn where their food comes from.
Pepper Scales, 3, chows down on some kiwifruit in her Bayfield Early Education Program class focused on food exploration. The six-week class teaches students about the benefits of fruits and vegetables.
Pine River Shares brought several different colors of cauliflower to a Bayfield Early Education Program class to teach students about healthful food. Cauliflower is good for your fingernails and hair, volunteer Susan Fischer told students.
Sara Grover, left, a volunteer with Pine River Shares, reads a book about berries to children in the Bayfield Early Education Program as Susan Fischer, another volunteer, offers support.

Bayfield preschoolers peered curiously at purple cauliflower and munched on kiwifruit during a March food-exploration class.

Pine River Shares volunteer Susan Fischer encouraged students to smell and break apart produce, even if they were dubious about tasting it. Blueberries appeared on their plates last to the delight of some students.

"Why do you think they would make me happy?" Fischer said.

"Antioxidants," replied one of the 14 chatty students at Bayfield Early Education Program.

"Blueberries are great brain food," Fischer affirmed.

Some students left food on their plates. But exposing students' palates to new flavors makes them more likely to eat healthier later, said Pine River Shares coordinator Pam Willhoite.

Preschool food-exploration classes in Bayfield and Ignacio are just one of many programs Pine River Shares, a nonprofit, has started to improve the health of residents from Vallecito to Sambrito, New Mexico, Willhoite said.

The work started five years ago, when residents identified access to affordable, healthful food as a major challenge, during a town hall-style meeting. Since then, Pine River Shares has given away thousands of backpacks stuffed with food to schoolchildren and food boxes to needy families. But the nonprofit doesn't want to meet short-term needs forever; it wants to create a thriving food-secure community.

"When the Pine River Valley was food-secure, it was because there were so many homesteading people providing enough food for themselves and their neighbors. And that's what we are reaching for again," Willhoite said.

The nonprofit has launched Field to Fork, an effort to build a more independent regional food system.

A key piece will be encouraging residents to produce 10 percent of their food locally for purchase or barter.

For residents, meeting the 10 percent goal could mean gardening, hunting or raising animals, Willhoite said. The nonprofit's goal is to sign up 1,400 residents interested in hitting the goal.

Long term, Pine River Shares wants to set up community greenhouses, bring historic orchards back into production, plant food-bearing trees on public property and set up mobile farmers markets.

The nonprofit also wants to set up agricultural processing centers to allow locally produced food to be redistributed locally.

Teachers at all grade levels will be encouraged to use food production in lessons, such as math and social studies, she said. This approach could better connect students to their food.

"We see a generation that does not have experience with how you grow food," she said.

The nonprofit has already started to encourage more food production by giving away five gardens to winners of an annual essay contest.

Bayfield Early Education Program won a garden, and it has helped all students learn that food does not come from trucks or the grocery store, but from the ground.

"That's what we're reaching for," Willhoite said.

Another garden winner was Lucas Maestas, 4. He dictated the responses to essay questions to his mom, Ameryn Maestas, who filled out his application for the vertical strawberry garden.

"He just was really excited to pick his own and have his own (strawberries)," she said.

Pine River Shares is also helping to bring the Double Up Food Bucks program to the Bayfield Farmers Market. Through the program, those who qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps, can double their money when they buy fruits and vegetables at the market. The new program will help support local producers, who often have to leave the area to sell their products.

All of these ambitious ideas have been generated by residents served by the nonprofit. People propose solutions and help implement them, Willhoite said.

In 2017, more than 60 adults and teenagers spent more than 3,000 hours on the nonprofit's projects, said Willhoite, the only paid Pine River Shares employee.

Ashli Pope got involved about a year ago when she moved back to Bayfield from Denver after her divorce. She had lost weight because of health problems and her mom suggested a visit to the nonprofit's free clothing closet. She also received needed food.

"They offered not only the food and clothing, but a lot of friendship and prayer and kindness," she said.

Pope was seriously injured in a head-on car accident 20 years ago. Since then, she has had 40 surgeries. The accident left her with crushed legs and an injured spine. It is hard for her to work, but she has struggled to qualify for disability.

She said she felt welcomed by the Pine River Shares volunteers and started helping once a week, stocking shelves and packing food bags.

The women she met encouraged her to restart her soap-making business, and since then, Bayberry Market agreed to sell some of her wares.

"They just make you feel like more of a person," she said.