From Farms to Dollar Stores, One Woman’s Fight for Justice

In her long history as a community organizer and environmental justice activist, Helga Garza has advocated for clean water and nontoxic toys. Her current mission: making fresh, local produce accessible.

Helga Garza

Credit: ACN/Jedrec Lamb

One of the first things Helga Garza says about herself is that she is the daughter of an activist. (The other is that she identifies as a Native Indigenous woman.) Her pride is undeniable as she tells stories about her mother, who, in the 1960s, with only a third-grade education, organized their entire San Antonio neighborhood—made up of people of color, including Native people, Chicanos, and African-Americans—to advocate for sidewalks, paved roads, and other infrastructure through the federally funded urban renewal program. But she didn’t stop there: The neighborhood also needed a clinic, a Head Start program, and a recreation center. Garza’s mother formed a neighborhood council and eventually became part of the influential grassroots group Communities Organized for Public Service. And although her family was very poor, Garza says, every month they found a way to scrape together $3 to donate to the United Farm Workers movement.

“She always looked for justice,” Garza says. “I grew up in her activism, seeing victories and seeing small, scalable projects. This woman with a third-grade education made the quality of life better for my generation and for all of those after.”

Garza, 59, has honored her mother’s legacy of advocating for justice from the age of 18, when she moved farther south to Brownsville, Texas, right up to today from her home base in the South Valley of Albuquerque. She is now the executive director of the Agri-Cultura Network (ACN), a farm cooperative of more than 30 members and affiliates that provides community access to local and sustainably grown produce. ACN also gives farmers access to markets in local restaurants, hotels, and public schools and offers training in soil health and pest and weed management, among other services.

La Cosecha, an innovative community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, is a key part of ACN. From June to October each year, it distributes 320 bags of fruits and vegetables a week to local families and individuals. While CSAs don’t typically accept food assistance program payments, thanks to Garza’s work, La Cosecha participants—known as shareholders—may be subsidized by other members and can pay for their produce using federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and vouchers provided by New Mexico’s Double Up Food Bucks program. (That program doubles shareholders’ money for state-grown produce.) All this allows low-income residents to get a $30 bag of food for $3.

La Cosecha also expands its shareholders’ access to food by allowing them to pick up their produce at community centers, clinics, and advocacy organizations throughout South Valley. “Everybody has worked together to make it happen,” Garza says. “One beautiful thing that always amazes me is when we started this, there was no model for us. Our community came together and we all figured it out—because we couldn’t do it on our own, and the farmers couldn’t do it on their own. We needed the community to all come together to make a healthy market, the vision and mission rooted within the community that we want to serve.”

Before she arrived in the Albuquerque area, Garza spent 20 years as an organic farmer herself in the border town of Brownsville, where she says she learned a lot of lessons—not just about farming but also about community organizing. There, she fought water pollution stemming from American-owned factories just across the Mexican border in Matamoros, advocated for fewer floodlights in Brownsville’s militarized border zone, and did cross-border work with Casa de Colores, a group focused on Indigenous thought and culture. All these experiences have continued to shape her activism today.

One particularly meaningful partnership has been with Richard Moore, who currently co-coordinates the national Environmental Justice Health Alliance and codirects Los Jardines Institute, one of ACN’s member farms. He and Garza met in Brownsville, where they advocated for a variety of social justice issues as part of the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, which Moore served as executive director from 1993 to 2010. “That was our first opportunity to join alliances with other communities that were facing a lot of the same disparities that our small community was facing as well,” Garza says. The connections they forged with other border communities were key to the progression of their broader goals, she notes.

Three decades later, they are still working closely together. Moore highlights Garza’s influential role in the communities they live in and advocate for and with. “She’s a dynamic leader, and she brings to ACN farming experience and all the necessary skills to interact with the work we’re doing on the ground,” he says. “She’s very highly respected. But it’s not about the ‘I,’ it’s about the ‘we,’ and Helga has been instrumental in moving that thinking forward.”

The Campaign for Healthier Solutions team, with Garza third from left and NRDC's Sara Imperiale second from left
Credit: Sara Imperiala for NRDC

Most recently, in addition to her work with ACN, Garza—with the Campaign for Healthier Solutions, a project of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance and Coming Clean—has been advocating for Dollar General stores across the country to start selling local and sustainably grown produce. Many of the company’s 15,000 stores operate in food-deprived areas—often intentionally—and stock their food aisles almost exclusively with items that are canned, boxed, highly processed, and low in nutritional value. Meanwhile, 21 percent of Dollar General customers are on public assistance, and in New Mexico nearly 18 percent of the population is food insecure, a nationwide high.

The campaign to push for healthy foods at Dollar General builds on years of effort Garza and other activists have spent lobbying the company to be a better community partner. In particular, they’ve pressed Dollar General and other dollar-store chains to stop selling products—mostly children’s toys—made with toxic chemicals. Garza is now working to persuade the chain to sign on a few of its stores to the list of New Mexican institutions (which include hospitals, schools, and restaurants) that buy produce from ACN.

“We’ve put in a lot of legwork,” Garza says of her dollar-store advocacy. In March, Dollar General announced it would begin selling fresh produce in 450 of its stores, with a goal of eventually reaching 5,000—though the details of that commitment have been vague. Meanwhile, in May, Garza attended Dollar General’s annual shareholder meeting and secured a commitment from CEO Todd Vasos to visit Albuquerque to meet with ACN farmers about a prospective partnership.

Garza notes she is eager for Vasos to “see how ready we are,” pointing to the network’s growing statewide reach. “He can see our production capacity and how close the farms are to these stores we’re asking them to pilot.” (In particular, Garza is hoping to partner with two Dollar General stores in the South Valley and two in Albuquerque’s international district.)

Farmers harvesting chili peppers in Hatch, New Mexico
Credit: Reuters

“This project is a really exciting opportunity to reach low-income customers at a price they can afford with culturally appropriate, fresh food grown by farmers in their community,” says Sara Imperiale, a senior attorney at NRDC who traveled with Garza and other advocates to the Dollar General meeting in Tennessee. “Fundamentally, ACN wants to build power and wealth in the regional food system by meaningfully involving members of the local community. So a successful project will not only get lettuce into some Dollar General stores but will also lead to increased support for sustainable agriculture and local farmers. It will mean reduced pesticide and fertilizer use. It will mean better soil health. It will mean a reduced carbon footprint, and it’ll mean better, more nutritious options for low-income people of color where these dollar stores are predominantly located.”

Garza sees the alliance with Dollar General as integral to her food justice work. “They’re located here in our communities and we have no other choice but to purchase there,” she says. “We’re saying, let us pilot these stores where you will help build assets within the community—not just build your store and only take from it.” Such inspiring vision and determination recently earned her two highly competitive fellowships to further her work: the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Leaders Fellowship (2018–2021) and the Castanea Fellowship for 2020.

The recognition of Garza’s dedication to her community—and achievements on behalf of it—is well deserved, Imperiale says. “It’s hard to understand how it’s possible that she accomplishes all of the things that she does. She is a force to be reckoned with.”

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