Historically, school lunches have not been portrayed in the best light, but initiatives such as the New Mexico Grown program are beginning to change that.
New Mexico Grown, created about five years ago, is a program that helps connect local farmers with schools, senior centers and food banks to sell their produce with the goal of helping communities stay healthy and self-reliant.
Los Lunas Schools works with several local farms in the county, including Roots Farm in Adelino, Carrasco Family Farm in Los Chavez and Red Doc Farm in Bosque. Belen Consolidated Schools also works with Red Doc, and both districts buy from farms in Albuquerque and Corrales as well.
LLS Student Nutrition director Jamie Giron said for the past 11 years the district has been buying from local farmers but NM Grown has allowed them to purchase much more in recent years.
“I think it’s important because it supports the farmers and the local economy,” said Giron. “It develops good community relationships, and I think fresh fruits and vegetables is by far the best thing we can serve the kids. This year, we also got to purchase beef from Red Doc Farm.”
Through the NM Grown grant program, LLS was awarded about $66,000 in state funding this year to spend on produce from farmers certified through the program. Awards are given out on an annual basis based on meal count.
“We love our farmers and I think the program has been a blessing since it started,” said Giron. “It’s important that the students have meals that are filling, healthy, nutritious and that we’re giving back to our state.”
Ron Moya, owner of Roots Farm, says he enjoys the reliability of working with Los Lunas Schools through the NM Grown program.
“I needed to build a customer base and my vision was to not have grower market stuff but to sell more wholesale,” he said. “Knowing I have a loyal customer in Los Lunas Schools has been very helpful because if I don’t have customers like them, I’m constantly at growers markets trying to sell my stuff.”
Moya retired from Sandia National Labs in 2013, where he specialized in research and engineering related to nuclear arms control and security.
“I didn’t do any farming while I was working, as I was pretty dedicated to my career, but I grew up in this area on a farm and I enjoyed that part of my life so I bought the farm in 2017,” said Moya.
He farms oats, wheat, alfalfa and other types of hay, but Moya said his passion lies in produce.
“I enjoy it a lot. Produce is much more challenging and I find it much more rewarding to grow food and to deliver food to people,” he said. “I was educated in physical sciences, but this is all about biology and understanding organisms and soil. I’m all organic, so it’s a big challenge to deal with pests and all that stuff but I enjoy the battle.”
Moya applied to the NM Grown program when it first started and began selling to the school district shortly after.
“Los Lunas Schools has been terrific to work with,” said Moya. “For a minute I almost didn’t apply because I just didn’t know if I could deliver. I was just learning this whole thing, and the nutrition director at the time said, ‘That’s OK, if something happens and you can’t deliver, that’s just the way farming goes, so go ahead and apply.’”
Moya now sells a variety of produce to the district, including bell peppers, tomatoes and different kinds of melons. Giron said his honey blonde melons are a particular favorite among the kitchens.
During the peak harvest months of August through October, Moya makes a delivery to the district about once a week and says he receives very fair compensation.
“They say the students really enjoy the fresh produce,” said Moya. “I think it’s a really good program that I wish more people would participate in.”
Giron said the nutrition department has a great relationship with all the farmers they work with and that the students enjoy the wide variety of fruits and veggies that come across their plates.
“It’s fun because we get to buy different varieties of produce, some that I’ve never even heard of, that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to buy elsewhere,” said Giron.
Raymond and Rhonda Carrasco created Carrasco Family Farm in 2006. Their farm initially began as a small garden that expanded to the point where farming has become their full-time jobs. The Carrascos say additional nutritional value and freshness are important aspects provided by locally-sourced produce.
“We’re not certified organic, but we use all organic practices,” said Rhonda. “The food isn’t genetically modified or sprayed with chemical pesticides or chemical fertilizers. We use all natural stuff, which yields more nutrient-rich food.”
Raymond emphasized that the NM Grown program is good for the local economy and thinks it’s definitely healthier for the students.
“Anybody who eats a tomato, cucumber or anything here is really surprised by the flavor. It’s a big difference, an eye opener,” he said.
The Carrascos take pride in picking the produce the day before delivery, or two days for a big delivery to ensure maximum freshness.
“We have a regular company that delivers boxes of fresh produce and they make two to three different stops before they get here,” said Giron. “With my NM Grown produce, I know they’re picked that week and that is amazing in itself. You know the quality is there whenever you’re getting it through NM Grown.”
Rhonda said their passion lies in selling produce for those looking for something that tastes different than what you would conventionally find at a normal grocery store. They farm mostly root crops and greens, including carrots, beets, radishes, lettuce, spinach and more.
A third of what Carrasco Family Farm harvests goes to Los Lunas Schools.
“They’re good about working with farmers. Their communication is really good. If we offer they tell us real quick if they can use it or not,” she said. “Another thing that’s good about them is if we have an overabundance of something they can usually use it.”
Giron said she hopes the program continues at LLS and that more farmers get involved.
“I also hope the kids see the hard work that goes into it,” said Giron. “That you don’t just go to a bin and pick it out of there. To get fresh produce you have to nurture it, love it and grow it in order to get it there.”
To learn more about the program and how to get involved, visit newmexicogrown.org.
Felina Martinez was born and raised in Valencia County. She graduated from the University of New Mexico in 2021. During her time at UNM, she studied interdisciplinary film, digital media and journalism. She covers the village of Los Lunas, Los Lunas Schools, the School of Dreams Academy and the town of Peralta.