In Cochiti Pueblo, New Mexico, young people are returning to farming and reigniting a passion for their Pueblo ancestry. Thanks to the Cochiti Youth Experience, they are embracing quality food and what it means to their culture, sustainability and future.
“We take a big-picture approach to health,” said A-dae Romero-Briones, co-founder of the Pueblo de Cochiti-based nonprofit organization. “In our equation, food equals health, but food encompasses community, economics, land and spirituality. If you improve food, you improve all those things.”
It is a belief that immediately resonated with First Nations Development Institute (First Nations).
“First Nations believed in us,” she said. “We were a small group, concerned about supporting our community. We wanted to start a program that focused on culture and on potential. We came up with ideas to get people focused on what we were eating – foods that our grandparents ate – and the importance of food to our ancestors.”
First Nations provided initial funding in 2012, then an additional grant in 2013, to support the Cochiti Youth Experience and promote the power of farming in core Pueblo values and healthy living. Immediate objectives were to create a localized food system – supporting existing farmers, teaching Cochiti youth traditional farming techniques, and reinvigorating the tradition of farming to strengthen the social institutions of the Cochiti people.
Starting with a few cooking classes, the Cochiti Youth Experience grew every year, creating opportunities for youth to establish food networks, such as farm-to-table programs, and programs that provide food to tribal elders and the local school district. The group also established the Cochiti Farmers Mentorship Program that develops mentoring partnerships between youth and older farmers in order to pass traditional Cochiti agricultural knowledge to the next generation.
“We continually evolved our program to help as many people as possible,” said Executive Director Ken Romero. “That’s how everything needs to be done – from the bottom up. It’s not about how big we can get, it’s about how can we help: What’s the best way for us to minimize concerns or health problems and do the most good?”
In creating this food system, the Cochiti Youth Experience has stayed focused on investing in today’s youth, learning from and respecting elders, and creating a sustainable economy in Pueblo de Cochiti.
First and foremost, the Cochiti Youth Experience starts with youth, said Romero. The organization reaches children and teens at an age when they may be at risk for truancy or alcohol use, and reconnects them back to the land and their legacy. “We are here to enable all youth to make better lifestyle choices – nutrition, exercise, diet – and empower them to make good decisions for their future.”
The Cochiti Youth Experience also prioritizes the role of farming for the Cochiti people. “You can hear about our language, traditions and ceremony, but what’s essential is that we are farmers. If we overlook that, what’s next?” asked Romero. To embrace the farming tradition, the organization focuses on the input of elders in the community, and helps young people learn directly from grandparents working in the field.
“Long ago, food and agriculture was both a community and individual choice,” Romero-Briones added. “But the food industry now is national, and the food we eat is all manufactured. With food tied into both economics and land access, it’s important to get back to our heritage, and advocate for tribal communities to define, maintain and perpetuate our customs – through the food we grow and value.”
Finally, the Cochiti Youth Experience has built an economy, a place where youth can begin careers in education, administration, conservancy, public service and a host of other industries. The organization aims to show young people that they can return to Pueblo de Cochiti to make a difference, and that they don’t have to move away to create a life elsewhere.
Another aspect of building that economy and fostering the Cochiti food system is making farming and agriculture a viable career option. To that end, the Cochiti Youth Experience makes a conscious decision to pay its farmers. “Young people need to know that farming is a valued profession. This instills pride and confidence, as we recognize that their knowledge and time is worth money,” said Romero-Briones.
Today, the Cochiti Youth Experience recognizes that it can’t sit back and be happy with the status quo – they have to keep working to make things better, said Romero. The organization continually seeks new opportunities for producing quality food. “There is so much of the Pueblo life that’s involved throughout the whole circle – planting, harvest, storage and preparation. We want what’s best to empower everyone, everywhere.”
Since 2012, the Cochiti Youth Experience has served more than 2,311 meals to the community. The number of farm mentors has almost doubled, and the number of youth participating in the food programs has grown from 6 to 26.
But Romero underscores the ripple effect of these numbers. “If we reach 25 teens, we’re also reaching 50 parents, and their grandparents, and their brothers and sisters. It increases exponentially. These programs benefit the whole community,” he said.
Another benefit is that the Cochiti Youth Experience model is fully replicable, and Romero welcomes organizations throughout Indian Country to implement it in full or in part. “We want to share this with everybody. Come visit, take the time, try it out. It can make a huge difference,” he said.
Romero-Briones again thanks First Nations for believing in the Cochiti Youth Experience. “It’s allowed programming like ours to happen,” she said. “When you feel supported in communities that historically are least supported, it allows this renaissance to happen. First Nations focuses on potential.”
Learn more about the Cochiti Youth Experience and watch a First Nations Development Institute video about “The Changing Landscape of Native American Food Sources” featuring Ken Romero and the Cochiti Youth Experience, along with the pueblos of Nambé and Santo Domingo.
By Amy Jakober