WNMU Hosts Town Hall Event to Launch New Food Security and Sustainability Initiative

WNMU President Joseph Shepard speaks about the university's new Food Security and Sustainability initiative, Nov. 29, 2023

© Western New Mexico University

WNMU held a town-hall style discussion on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023 to share information and gather input regarding a new initiative on food security and sustainability.

The meeting was well attended by community members, including representatives of a number of potential collaborative partners.

“While I am pleased by this, I am not surprised by [it] because of the community in which we live,” said WNMU President Joseph Shepard in his opening remarks, “We live in a community that really has a robust care for each other.”

The need for solutions to food insecurity are increasingly pressing, said Dave Chandler, the Director of the Commons Center for Food Sustainability and Security, who was asked to speak at the town hall. “We are seeing unprecedented need in the classroom,” he stated.

Another guest at the event, Sarita Cargas, Associate Professor of Human Rights at UNM, provided some background on how widespread food insecurity is among college students, faculty and staff in New Mexico. As the founder and principal investigator of the Basic Needs Project, Cargas oversaw a recent survey that found that, on average, 52% of those learning or working in higher education in the state experienced food insecurity in the previous 30 days.

To address this problem, the university plans to work collaboratively with the Commons and other organizations that are working toward food security and sustainability. Said Shepard, “What I would like to do is create a model for our state and perhaps for our country [that ensures] no child goes hungry, no student goes hungry, no adolescent goes hungry, no mother or father, no sister or brother.”

As part of the initiative Shepard said that the university would be building two new greenhouses as well as installing a campus garden and developing a composting system to ensure the initiative is sustainable. The intent is to provide fresh food to the campus community at no cost in order to end food insecurity on campus.

Students involved with the program would work to grow food on campus and volunteer their time with organizations like the Commons. Shepard said it was important to engage students in producing their own food and learning sustainable agricultural practices. “Food and water are essential to support life,” he said, “but being that we are an educational institute, we also have a commitment to teach people about food production.”

“They can then take that [knowledge] elsewhere as they grow and teach others about it,” said Shepard.

The university has already received a $500,000 donation from WNMU Regent Lyndon Haviland to kickstart the initiative, and it is seeking additional sources of funding.

Audience members offered a number of suggestions for the university during the event—from offering a free, online course on permaculture to instituting a procurement policy that prioritizes locally grown products to targeting outreach to especially vulnerable populations like youth and elders. Many of those who spoke at the event expressed an interest in being involved.

While the agricultural arm of the initiative will take time to develop, the university is planning to hire a director for the program and has already begun its collaborative efforts on food security.

Describing one recently launched collaboration, Chandler noted that the Commons has started a “unique and innovative program with WNMU this year, the College Culinary Club.” In this program, he said, students work in the commercial kitchen at the Commons to learn about cooking and nutrition and to make food both for themselves and for other students on the WNMU campus. The meals they make are frozen and distributed through the WNMU One Stop food pantry. Chandler said that the program was piloted successfully this year and there are plans to grow the program next semester.

Regent President Mary Hotvedt praised the audience’s collective knowledge about food security and sustainability as a “knowledge library.” “What we need,” she said, “is a cataloging of all the wealth in knowledge we have in this community about food production and soil.”

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