Embracing Food Sovereignty With Zuni Youth Enrichment Project

Courtesy/Zuni Youth Enrichment Project

Courtesy/Zuni Youth Enrichment Project


ZUNI — The Zuni Youth Enrichment Project in the Pueblo of Zuni, New Mexico, has a special motto for its year-round Food Sovereignty programming.

That motto is “We Grow, We Share, We Eat, We Save” and it is deeply rooted in Zuni culture and traditional values.

Every year, with support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Tribal Practices for Wellness in Indian Country, Native American Agriculture Fund, New Mexico Department of Health and Newman’s Own Foundation, the nonprofit organization provides access to needed resources, instruction through classes and workshops, and knowledge-sharing through a dedicated Agriculture Advisory Committee and Agriculture Support Team. Together, community members of all ages share the journey from planting and nurturing to harvesting and seed-saving.

Reflecting on 2022, Food Sovereignty Assistant Coordinator Brittny Seowtewa said “the fall Family Cook Nights were highlights in the annual program calendar. These special events, offered in person and via Zoom, gave families opportunities to make multiple-course meals using plant-based ingredients. We received a 90-percent approval rating for the program, and 100 percent for the meal kits. The kids are so honest! If we got their approval, we must have done something right.”

“Most of the participants who attended the first Family Cook Night event in September attended the October and November events as well,” she continued. “They told us they enjoyed cooking together, spending quality time together as a family, and seeing their kids’ excitement. It was such a privilege to see the kids taking a leadership role with their families, and to see the generations come together.”

Zuni youth weren’t just learning to cook with their families as the year drew to a close. They also were learning how to save seeds at ZYEP’s Ho’n A:wan Park, an initiative that the youth project started in 2019.

“This is where food sovereignty begins,” Seowtewa said. “In our culture, we have a lot of prayers and songs about seeds, and it’s important to us that we’re able to pass on the organic, non-GMO seeds that are so precious. They have deep meaning as part of the cycle of life.”

According to Food Sovereignty Leader Dylan Solomon, participating youth learned both traditional and modern techniques in seed-saving. With corn, for example, they learned to sift the kernels in traditional woven baskets; with red corn, they also learned to use the husk.

“With watermelons, they sliced it and then used a small spoon to take out the seeds and put them on a tray,” Solomon said. “Then they were able to enjoy eating the melon! It was really fun.”

The young people also learned to save seeds from cilantro and tomatoes, as well as from donated produce that included Hopi squash and blue corn. At one seed-saving workshop led by Food Sovereignty Leader Junior Haloo, the kids were able to save watermelon seeds and then eat the melon.

“We started small with our seed-saving here at ZYEP, but the program is growing,” Seowtewa said. “Nearly half of our crops were planted with seeds from last year, and that will be up to 90 percent this coming year.”

Looking toward the 2023 growing season, the ZYEP team is hopeful for a second year of abundant rain. Last year, not only were all the rain-harvesting tanks in Ho’n A:wan Park filled, families who received rain barrels through the Food Sovereignty program reported they had more water than they knew what to do with.

“Some families had two of our 100-gallon blue barrels plus a 55-gallon barrel from an earlier year,” Seowtewa said. “They filled them all. Others have storage tanks and were able to store more than 1,000 gallons this year.”

The rain-harvesting program will continue in 2023, as will the garden program, which provides garden kits, workshops and ongoing knowledge-sharing through the ZYEP Agriculture Support Team. The garden program, in particular, has gotten a 100-percent favorable rating in post-season surveys.

“Our registered families told us that it helped them feel connected to Zuni agricultural traditions,” Seowtewa reported. “More than 96 percent also said the initiative supported their families through their gardens or farms.”

At press time, the ZYEP Food Sovereignty team was actively engaged in the “Rooted in Healthy Traditions” After-School Program at Shiwi Ts’ana Elementary School, teaching third- to fifth graders about nutrition and garden care. Food Sovereignty Leader Kenzi Bowekaty said they’re also preparing for seed starts and a soil-prep demonstration.

“We work with families to develop the best mixture for the plants, combining different sands and manure,” she explained. “Our gardeners and farmers learn why each part matters and where they can find those free ingredients here in Zuni.”

The team will offer mini grants again this year, providing local farmers and organizations with financial support. In 2022, ZYEP received 24 applications and awarded $22,000 to 13 grantees.

Finally, the team is planning to launch a Food Sovereignty Internship Program this spring. This yearlong experience will conclude with an opportunity for the interns to join the Agriculture Support Team.

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), YouTube (/ZuniYouth), and TikTok (/zyep09)

About Zuni Youth Enrichment Project

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.


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