ZUNI, NM (June 11, 2021) — With support from the New Mexico Department of Health and the Native American Agriculture Fund, the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project is taking its food sovereignty initiative to the next level for the 2021 growing season. Last year, the nonprofit youth organization distributed garden kits to local families so they could develop their own gardens; this year, ZYEP formally registered 100 families for an official program that incorporates garden kits, rain-harvest barrels, seeds, tools, and a collaborative ZYEP Agriculture Support Team.

According to Jessica Quinlan, ZYEP’s food sovereignty coordinator, the evolution of the program is a dream come true for the staff and the youth and families they serve. As she observed, agriculture is closely intertwined with Zuni culture and traditions.

“ZYEP’s Agricultural Committee guides the values our program reflects,” she explained. “We strive to include youth in every aspect of the growing season, use good seeds, and conserve water. It’s so important to provide these sustainable gardening opportunities to Zuni youth.

“We did distribute garden and rain-harvest kits last year, but the families who received one kit didn’t necessarily get the other,” she continued. “This year, it’s an actual program that incorporates all the elements, and we’re so excited.”

Distributed in May, the 100 garden kits included corn, cilantro, carrot, melon, marigold, and various Native seeds; onion bulbs; a 4-foot shovel and rake; a water-saving bin; local soil; straw to conserve moisture; and a book about planting. Going forward, the ZYEP team will remain in close touch with registered families through the Agriculture Support Team.

“We’ll be visiting them and taking pictures,” Quinlan said. “Each visit will be an opportunity to share ideas and information, and celebrate the fun things that are happening. We’re doing this together.”

ZYEP is dedicated to revitalizing sustainable ways for Native organic crops to be grown and distributed among community members, creating stronger and healthier individuals and strengthening connections with ancestral Zuni culture. Quinlan noted that the entire initiative began with the kids.

“This is all made possible due to the enthusiasm of our Zuni youth, who involve family members of all ages,” she said. “Last year, we learned that for every kit we distributed, four people planted; that means 100 kits this year will involve 400 to 500 people. That’s how we know it’s the right thing to do. It’s led by our community members, and it reflects Zuni values.”

Quinlan also observed that, in 2020, more than 30 percent of gardening families included elders who shared stories while they helped plant. And 100 percent of gardening families reported that they felt more connected to Zuni language and culture through the growing season.

This year, that connectedness will be enhanced through ZYEP’s outreach efforts. In addition to the home-garden visits, the youth project will engage with participants through regular activities such as cooking demonstrations and nutrition workshops.

“We want to build relationships, provide guidance and support, and uplift everyone’s unique strengths and talents,” Quinlan said. “Agriculture is a learning process for first-time gardeners all the way to experienced farmers; it’s all about teaching each other.”

In May, ZYEP’s Agriculture Support Team and staff delivered rain barrels for the rain harvesting component of the program, which also will include a barrel-decorating contest for youth. A select number of families also have signed up for gutter kits, so the youth project will offer installation workshops as well. And Quinlan said this is just the tip of the iceberg.

“We want our community to be able to grow and share its own food, especially traditional foods using Native, non-GMO, organic seeds,” she said. “These seeds are trustworthy, and they need less water. We can do so much, each one of us, to improve the health of our people — freshly harvested food is medicine. And, in the process, we’ll be encouraging the continuation of Zuni traditions.”

Brittny Seowtewa, 28, agreed. She works closely with Quinlan at ZYEP, and she said Native food sovereignty is her passion.

“Our ancestors cared for their plants and grew their own food,” she said. “They came together to harvest it, to dehydrate it, and to trade and share it. So food sovereignty is an old concept, but it’s new also. We need to relearn it.”

To learn more about the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project and its programs, and for information about making donations, partnering with ZYEP, and volunteering, call (505) 782-8000 or visit zyep.org. And, to stay up to date on the latest news and events, follow the nonprofit youth organization on Facebook (/zuniyouthenrichmentproject), Instagram (@zuniyouthenrichmentproject), and YouTube (/ZuniYouth).

Founded in 2009, the nonprofit Zuni Youth Enrichment Project is dedicated to promoting resilience among Zuni youth so they will grow into strong, healthy adults who are connected with Zuni traditions. ZYEP fulfills its mission by providing positive role models, enriching programs, and nurturing spaces that contribute to the healthy development of Zuni youth. ZYEP strives to provide every child with the encouragement and opportunities they need to reach their full potential.