Omaha Residents Return to their Ancestral Roots in Search of a Food Sovereignty

Paula Hernández happily shows one of the tomatoes from her home garden. Apart from the fruit, it also has chiles, green tomatillos, coriander, cucumber, pumpkin and even melon. Photo: Mike Machian.

By Karlha Velásquez Rivas

Humans have strayed from the nutritional makeup of hunter/gatherer or early agrarian societies. With industrialization and technological development, increases in processing protein and vegetables and the use of agrochemicals, cancer became more common, along with high rates of hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes.

In Omaha, a group of people and non-profit organizations are working to rescue the ancestral customs of agriculture and food consumption through urban gardens and permaculture.

In addition to work at the Latino Center of the Midlands, Omaha Permaculture and GVRe-solve have been undertaking. There are other organizations like Malcolm X Foundation that are also part of the chain of revolution and new agricultural connections.

Latinos planting their health

Coming from a humble family, Laura Hernández is a Mexican immigrant living in South Omaha. Last year she joined the Seeding Health Program through the Latino Center of The Midland under the direction of Viridiana Almanza. Hernández told us in an interview for El Perico that she was interested in learning about the program immediately. “I saw it on a billboard in the Latino center and it explained what it was all about,” she said.

She stood with a baby in her arms while her two young sons played in the small garden that her landlord allowed her to cultivate (4.5 square meters, about 48 square feet). Hernández is happy to be part of the program. It is now her second year and she has picked tomatoes, bell peppers, chilli peppers, kale, cucumbers and corn, among other produce. She says she still has some tomatoes from last year in the freezer.

Laura Hernández takes care of her garden every day. Her children contribute to it. Photo: Mike Machian.

“I thought that I just needed to sow and that’s it, but that’s not the case. Here I have learned to take care of the plants and identify whether the land in which I sow is suitable or not. We know there are leaded lands (soil that is dangerously high in the lead) in Omaha. I really like this and it’s organic. I also learned to recognize pests and how to end them naturally. I save a lot of money on fresh vegetables.”

She said that one of her children loves cherry tomatoes. In the market, a small  8 ounce box can cost up to $4, while a single plant can produce between 3 and 4 kilos (between 6 to 9 lbs) in fertile soil with bright sunshine.

Hernández takes this as a sustainable and educational way of life for her children who grow up having contact with the earth.

In one corner of her garden Paula has already harvested several of the items that she planted. Photo: Mike Machian.

At another house, Paula Hernández shows us her garden also designed by the Seeding Health Program. It is located at one corner of her house and is about 15 square meters (161 square feet). She is thrilled about having picked up her first harvest of Roma tomatoes, apples and greens. She tells us that since she learned about the program she doesn’t want to stop learning from it.

“There is nothing more satisfying than taking care of our health through food that tastes like what it really is, food and not those processed things. Look here, I have pumpkins, melons, kale, tomatoes, tomatillos, corn, coriander, serrano peppers, habanero peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, potatoes and now fruit trees,” said Paula.

Always smiling and very energetic, Hernández also involves her husband in the task of caring for the garden, protecting it from wild animals and pests. “Here we all collaborate, afterwards, we all eat and eat tasty and healthy,” she says.

The vegetable patches are supervised by crop experts Gladys Moscoso and Diana Linares, under the direction of gardening specialist Cecilia Saavedra.

Stress management

Viridiana Almanza, promoter and creator of the program, says it was born as a result of the alarming number of Latinos in Omaha with heart disease, diabetes and stress, a product of an unbalanced diet and absence of fresh vegetables.

“We took this initiative so that families (could) have their own gardens in their homes and use gardening to practice stress management, which is important since it affects Latinos. Especially for the type of work that our community has. This is a way to relax and interact with our families, ” she said.

Beyond stress, exercise and chronic illness, the Seeding Health Program also focus on nutrition and food preservation. “We come from countries where agriculture works, and we think it is a way to promote our own culture in South Omaha and teach children and gather them with the grandparents who teach them about cultivation,” says Almanza.

To be part of this program, you must be Latino and also meet a series of requirements. First, it must be shown that the family or person lacks the resources to cover nutritional needs, qualify for reduced school lunches and lacks economic resources. Second, you require direct help from social service and third: the person must commit to participating from mid-April to November.

The Omaha community uses orchards as a mechanism to manage stress. Photo: Viridiana Almanza.

The two-year-old program is also sponsored by CHI Health, Nebraska Extension, City Sprouts and UNMC. “The idea of all this is that families learn to grow their own food. Aside from the Latino community, we also want to include recent immigrants or refugees, because we know they have the same agricultural roots. For this we need to understand their culture and build their confidence to join this program, ” she said.

Almanza said that last year 19 families joined and this year they have 29 families, equivalent to 163 participants. “There is still another group pending. We know that many want to participate but we only have resources for some, ” she said.

Those selected receive classes in agriculture, land management, pesticides, planting and food gathering, planting days and irrigation. In addition, the Seeding Health Program provides you with all the necessary equipment, like shovels, hoses, seeds, wood, stakes and pesticides.

“Hopefully, in a few years’ time, Latinos could create a Farmer’s Market here in South Omaha, and families could make a social network to stay connected so that we all could take care of our resources that we have cared for so much. If this generates economic income, it can be a motivation for them to value this type of work more. Apart from that, it improves their mental and nutritional health,” she said.

Agriculture with permanent culture

Food self-sustainability is one of the philosophies that keep non-profit organization Omaha Permaculture alive. It is committed to what its name says: permaculture.

But it goes further. Permaculture is also an integrated and evolving system where the cycle of plants is maintained and respected so that they last, in addition to the animal species useful to humans. The term was coined in 1978 by Bill Mollison and David Holmgre. Some cities in the United States are already adopting this ideology as a mechanism to preserve thehuman species.

Omaha Permaculture was founded in 2013 by Gus Von Roenn, who with his anthropological, sociological and archaeological knowledge saw the need to interweave the ancient knowledge of agriculture with the modern nature of the human being. His knowledge is sought by the communities that want to join the project and be part of food sovereignty.

Gus Von Roenn is the founder of Omaha Permaculture. Photo screenshot.

In an interview conducted from his 8-acre (3.2 hectares) space located at 4101 Grant Street in North Omaha, Von Roenn sees a future for healthier lives regardless of what is eaten. He, along with other experts in food and cultivation, recovered this once-vacant space and conditioned it to shape urban gardens that currently provide food to two non-profit organizations that help the homeless: No More Empty Pots and Table Grace.

“We collect around 50 pounds a week of produce that we allocate to these two places. We do it with our hearts. Here we also have high school interns. Young people who learn about agriculture and we show them another path more connected to nature, ” he said.

Von Roenn commented that the project receives no state or government funding and that economic resources often come from people’s contributions and courses taught to organizations about changing the conventional agricultural system.

The expert appreciated the union of Latino communities. “We see that Cinco de Mayo is a holiday where flavours converge in food. Latinos maintain a culture deeply rooted in their lands. Although they are no longer (in their homelands), they seek to incorporate things into their diet and with them, a sense of community, ” he said.

In the future, he wants to buy the land and then work on “bringing back the food markets to North Omaha. Markets where people sell their own products and more people join to work the land,” he said. Currently, there is a vegetable garden at 2064 N 18th St. For those interested, the project does not charge money, but people may make a contribution to the installation of the water tanks. However, this will depend on the evaluations that are made.

In search of reGEneration

In September 2019 an article was published in theOmaha World Herald explained the legal battle of a Nebraska farmer, Larry Domina, against a herbicide product sold by Monsanto.  The product causes cancer, and the main victims were the farmers. Roundup (the product) is still being sold.

Graham Christensen is president of GC Resolve, a company dedicated to connecting the urban with the rural and re-educating communities about the negative impacts that transnational-dominated agriculture causes to human beings and nature. This system puts aside independent farmers without clean water and without fertile land.

For him, it takes tremendous work to guarantee food sovereignty and he fights to make his voice heard about health problems and food accessibility. He created the Regenerate Project, which includes 86 groups of community or farm organizations.

He explained that with the pandemic, we have seen food production accelerate to cover the population demand, but the state has not responded to the warning of a food security crisis.

Graham Christensen spoke to us in an interview about the ReGEnerate project involving more than 64 farmers. Screenshot.

In a recent GCResolve news article, the companies Nebraska Communities United, GC Resolve, Forward Latino and the Nebraska League of United Latin American Citizens call on the state of Nebraska to put more effort “to protect the fragile food system.”

Beyond the diseases that genetically manipulated food could cause, “Our leaders must seize this opportunity to build a regenerative future for our state,” he said in the article.

In the processes of regeneration, permaculture and sowing health, the main protagonist to preserve our life on earth in a harmonious way is the seed which is not owned by the companies but by those who cultivate and care for it, and then reap the fruits that fill us with life and not with the disease.

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