Photo: Danny Zaragoza, Staff Photographer / Laredo Morning Times
One of the many lessons of the pandemic is that grocery stores do not have infinite supplies; products do in fact run out when there is high demand.
Considering this and the fact that in general more nutritious foods are needed around the Gateway City, in 2020 the community group Red Wing United established a community garden. Their goal is not only to cultivate food for people who may be in need around the city, but also to teach others on how to cultivate their own produce.
“We started construction in June, building the beds, amending the soil and setting up the irrigation system,” said Alec James Martinez, a member of Red Wing United. “Aside from our consultant, none of us had ever done this kind of work before. But we were able to feed almost 1,000 households back when COVID first broke out without prior emergency relief experience either, so we knew we could figure this out, too.”
Red Wing United makes food donations thanks to their gardens, and they look forward to continue helping as the need is demanded. But their main goal is to teach the community how to grow their own food and to feed their own people as well.
“Much of Red Wing’s work is just about rolling up our sleeves and doing the best we can,” Martinez said. “And, that’s an important part of the story, that we aren’t experts. Because other people can look at us and think, ‘If they can do it, so can we.’ And that’s a part of our mission: to empower people.”
The produce that the garden grows includes two types of kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, beets, radishes, Swiss chard, cilantro, parsley and basil, which are all in full growth right now. And soon the garden is expected to grow in variety as well.
According to Martinez, the organization recently planted carrots, bok choy, spinach and lettuce, and they expect to start sowing vine vegetables like tomatoes starting new week as they continue their efforts to grow their garden.
Martinez believes it’s necessary for people to be able to know how to harvest these food for themselves, as healthy options are scarce in the city.
“Health is essential to a good life,” Martinez said. “In Laredo, big oil companies frack beside our neighborhoods poisoning our air and water and doing very little for our economy all the while. While city officials are constantly priding themselves that we’re the number one port in America, Laredo has some of the highest extreme poverty rates in the entire country.
“So if these big companies won’t provide a dignified wage for our people, and if the city government continues to budget the lion’s share of our tax dollars towards systems of punishment instead of systems of empowerment — our police budget is around $90 million; our community development budget is $6 million — then we are put in a position where we have to help ourselves. We can be our own heroes by growing our own food and sharing with one another, taking care of one another.”
Recently Red Wing United hosted several days where people could come in to check on the garden and also help them learn.
“Because of COVID, the garden isn’t as open to the public as we would like it to be,” Martinez said. “So, we’re setting up designated days where people can come and check it out safely. We’ll only be allowing in a handful of people at a time.”
The garden might be closed for people to go in and work, but Martinez points out that the garden is not closed for people wanting to go and get their vegetables from the area. In fact, he points out that it has been this way since the pandemic began.
“When we were doing COVID relief work and H-E-B started running out of food, we realized we couldn’t always depend on them, the food bank, or a steady stream of donations,” Martinez said. “We wanted to be as self-sustaining as possible. Much of Laredo has been a food desert for a long time, where entire neighborhoods don’t have access to healthy, affordable food. That’s why we decided to build this garden: we grow the food, if people are interested they can learn with us and anybody can take it home to eat.”
Red Wing has their eye out for abandoned lots in the city that they can turn into more gardens, Martinez said.
“In the long run, we’d like to create community land trusts and cooperative housing, too. Food, housing, and education: that’s what we’re hoping to bring,” he said.
And once the pandemic ends, Red Wing is looking to host classes for the community about how to grow food and cook it.