Santa Fe, New Mexico – 2001. Though the “City Different” has been a tourist mecca for decades, drawing devotees to its Southwest architecture and lively art and food scenes, there was a side to the region that visitors rarely saw. Yes, the ever-popular Santa Fe farmers’ market was the eclectic hub for transplanted Anglos, omni-present tourists, and Northern New Mexico’s small farmers. Jokes abounded such as “what is bearded, wears Birkenstocks, and carries a Caramel-infused latte? A Santa Fe Farmers’ Market shopper.”

But what was less funny for those who worked tirelessly for fair prices for family farmers, was the near total absence of Santa Fe’s lower income shoppers and even its larger Latino community. The farmers themselves came from generations of Hispanic families, some of whom traced their roots back to the late 16th century. As sellers, they benefited from the market’s reputation for high food prices, but ironically, many of those farmers still relied on food stamps to get by.

This desire for equity drove market organizers like Stanley Crawford, Pam Roy, Sarah Grant, and Esther Kovari to find solutions. But they faced a major conundrum: Fair prices for struggling farmers could not be achieved by selling “cheap food” to lower income families. Pam and her cohorts had partially breached that wall in the mid-1990s by convincing the New Mexico State Legislature to allocate $42,300 to match $87,000 in federal funds from the WIC/Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program which benefitted both farmers and low-income families. The results were encouraging but the overall impact was small. They needed to “go big” which, in New Mexico meant leveraging the power and the purse of public policy. That’s where USDA’s Community Food Projects Competitive Grant Program (CFP) came in.

“CFP became the launching pad for all our community food initiatives,” Pam Roy, now executive director of the non-profit Farm to Table, told me. “With a 3-year, $300,000 CFP grant in 2001, we planted the food system seed in state government and its never stopped growing!” One could say it took two seeds that would fuse into one to grow food system thinking throughout New Mexico—one to promote food security for all residents—a particular challenge in a state with one of the highest food insecurity rates in the country—and one to support local farmers. In the words of CFP’s founding legislation, funded projects will “meet the food needs of low-income people…increase the self-reliance of communities…promote comprehensive responses to food, farm, and nutrition issues.” Farm to Table and the dozens of organizations that coalesced around this holistic approach would eventually fulfill all three objectives.

New Mexico’s work was exactly what Elizabeth “Liz” Tuckermanty envisioned for CFP. Liz was a National Program Leader for Nutrition at the USDA Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service from 1994 to 2012 (due to a reorganization in 2009, the agency was re-named the National Institute for Food and Agriculture). Liz was tapped by CSREES’s Administrator, Colleen Hefferan, to take charge of the Community Food Project program that had been authorized by Congress as part of the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996 (the farm bill).

For Liz, who possessed a “big picture” view of the food and farm world, this was a job made in heaven. “I said to myself, now we can finally talk about ‘food systems’,” she told me, bemoaning the fact that even in a 1990s Democratic administration, “every time I brought up the subject of food system programs in USDA, I would get push back.” Intellectually, CFP was liberating for Liz since it built on ground originally plowed by the regionally-administered Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE). This fairly new program made one-year, project grants that brought agriculture and the community together to promote sustainable farming. Liz said that, “CFP went beyond that; it was innovative; grants could run for three-years, and funded projects were required to have multiple partners. This approach gave communities a chance to look at a much longer horizon, and even dream a little.”

Another feature of CFP that Liz found attractive was its potential “to support nascent groups.” With a relatively tiny amount of federal money available annually—beginning at $2 million, growing to $9 million, and then falling to $5 million—Liz was very conscious, even fearful, of how these funds could be gobbled up in a few big bites by universities and food banks. Hovering at times like a protective mother, Liz did all she could within the bureaucratic and political boundaries of USDA to assure that CFP funds went to the so-called little guy. One example which she readily admits was one of her favorites, was an organization in Kansas “where women taught other women how to fix tractors.”

Pam Roy and the organizations that coalesced at the 20th century’s end were also the little guys. For the newly organized Farm to Table organization which grew out of previous work with the state’s farmers and farmers’ markets, CFP was their first significant grant. But as much as CFP favored local, small, and grass-roots, two stipulations in the grant program’s guidelines often bedeviled cash-strapped non-profits. One was that all federal funds must be matched at a ratio of one-to-one by non-federal funds, a requirement that could be met by in-kind support provided by many participating organizations. The other was a more philosophical criteria interpreted in different ways over the years: CFP grants should be a “one-time infusion” of federal funds designed to catalyze long term responses that would not require additional federal funds (applicants could apply for funds for new projects, but not funds to operate projects that had already received CFP grants). Raising the non-federal match can be a lighter lift when there are many hands from several participating organizations—even if your only “contribution” is a desk and a chair. But how do you solve complex problems like systemic food insecurity with only one federal grant?

For Farm to Table, the answer came by mobilizing communities, organizations, and even state government agencies to expand government’s role in food system work. With its “one-time infusion”, Farm to Table and its emerging coalition partners went on to launch dozens of ships for which the New Mexico legislature was often the first port of call. One of their first successful projects was the formation of the New Mexico Food and Agriculture Policy Council (NMF&APC) that would become the tip of the spear for tackling the state’s food inequities and engaging the state’s policymakers. As the years went on and its legislative campaigns became more effective, the NMF&APC would eventually secure hundreds of thousands of state dollars annually for such initiatives as farm to school and produce incentive programs for WIC and SNAP participants, and lower income senior citizens. Farm to Table also used some of its CFP funds to organize Santa Fe’s Southside Farmers’ Market (later renamed “Del Sur Market”) that provided a more accessible location for the city’s lower income families to shop. Today, that market is sponsored by the Presbyterian Hospital and offers three different produce incentive programs to area residents.

Similarly, CFP funds were set aside to develop a pilot farm to school program—one of the first in the country—within the Santa Fe school district. The pilot took root, and now the district spends over $70,000 per year of its own funds (as well as a smaller amount of state funds) on locally produced food. But taking the “one-time infusion” admonition to heart, Farm to Table targeted the New Mexico legislature as the source for long term funding support for what is now one of the more substantial farm to school programs in the country.

Looking back on 20 years of work one afternoon over lunch, Pam began to add up the total output of projects, policies, and funds that could be attributed, even indirectly, to CFP. The tally soon exceeded the back of the envelope she was using as a worksheet. For the 2019-2020 school year, almost $1.2 million was spent by 57 New Mexico school districts purchasing food from New Mexico farmers. That food was served to 171,000 students statewide. Of those funds, about one-third came from the state government coffers, and the rest came from local school food service budgets. Additionally, tens of thousands of New Mexico WIC, senior, and SNAP participants received hundreds of thousands of dollars in state and federal funds each year to purchase produce at farmers’ markets.

In the newest addition to the state’s direct from the farmer line-up of programs, nearly $150,000 in state funds are being used to purchase locally grown food for Senior Meal Programs. While the amount of funding has varied over the years—with steady increases from year-to-year being the norm—Pam’s ballpark estimate for two decades of work since the first CFP grant was well into the tens of millions of dollars. “CFP’s multiplier effect has been massive!” she concluded.

But state budget allocations rise and state allocations fall. Enlightened politicians are elected and, next term, low-wattage politicians are elected. Those who rely exclusively on a steady rise in public dollars to fund food system change may find themselves with nothing but pocket change at the end of the day. The smart money is on the institutionalization of innovative programs; that is, scrappy projects that struggle for funding, prove their mettle in the marketplace of ideas, and become part of the mainstream work of the public and private sectors. As Pam ticks off their achievements, a once blurry picture of what a sustainable and equitable food system might look like gradually comes into focus.

After many years of touting the value of farm to school to farmers and educators, Farm to Table and the NMF&APC convinced the NM Public Education Department to create a full-time position dedicated to farm to school administration. More recently, given the growing interest in the power of public procurement to serve nutrition program needs, support farmers, and grow rural economies, the state established the New Mexico Grown Interagency Task Force. Comprised of five state agencies, the task force will establish standard procurement procedures instead of what has otherwise been an idiosyncratic process (Pam referred to the Task Force as a “marriage that was a long time coming”). Staying in step with other agencies, the state’s senior nutrition services have committed to purchasing at least three percent of their total annual food needs from the state’s farmers. And while not yet rising to the level of a tangible proposal, a permanent change in the Federal SNAP program to build into each recipient’s benefits a produce incentive, may be in the offing.

While these actions might be viewed as mere baby steps, those who have been advocating for change and running pilot projects for decades see them as giant steps. To that end, the affirmation issued by the New Mexico Grown Interagency Task Force was viewed as something approaching a religious conversion: “New Mexico schools and school districts believe in local purchasing.”

Over the course of 50 years of community food system work—to say nothing of a few more years of just living—I’ve come to identify a phenomenon I call the Twenty-year Rule. While falling considerably short of the mathematical rigor of say Newtonian physics, my work and its attendant observations lead me to conclude that it takes about twenty years of concerted effort and sustained focus to achieve at least one substantial, “game-changing” goal. Climbing that mountain—one step at a time, one project at a time, one policy victory at a time—will get you to the peak if you persist, as they have done in New Mexico. Of course, once you reach that peak, you’ll be greeted by higher peaks beckoning in the distance, and likely to be scaled by younger ones who joined the journey more recently.

All the million-plus steps that those like Pam Roy and her fellow travelers began twenty years ago could never have been foreseen or planned in advance. A thousand detours and pitfalls awaited, but as the size of the team grew and their footsteps grew more synchronized; as the vision coalesced and the network expanded, the first mountain top became attainable. But what made a difference, what brought people together and gave them permission to imagine something different was that “one-time infusion” of CFP money.

*This is the second in a series of postings about the Community Food Projects Competitive Grant Program which is recognizing its 25th year of supporting the development of just and sustainable local food systems. From here, this reporter heads East on a road trip in search of other CFP stories. Stay tuned!