When Whole Foods opened its doors in October, many people rejoiced. The buzz seemed to indicate that El Pasoans finally had the means to access fresh, healthy, local foods. However, the store is only the most recent manifestation of a trend that has been developing in the city over several years.
“The movement that is happening here in El Paso has been going on for a while,” said Chef Roman Wilcox, operator of food truck One Grub Community. Instead of a tip, patrons are encouraged to leave a PIF (pay it forward), which will go toward covering the cost of someone else’s meal, if that person is unable to pay.
“I think El Paso is just ready now,” he said. “People are more aware. Social media has changed everything: the way we look at the industry, the way we look at food, the way people inform themselves.”
Wilcox has been in the food industry for decades and has seen the changes – some of them not positive. That solidified his commitment to providing healthier options for those he is serving.
“I came from a place where I watched chicken breasts change,” he said. “I’ve cut and sliced so many chicken breasts over the years, and I’ve watched them change texture and flavor. I can’t even eat a chicken breast now, because it’s so manipulated. I can’t stay blind to that.”
Farmers markets, community gardens and non-profits such as La Semilla, which has been educating locals on how to grow their own food since 2010, indicate an increased interest in homegrown food and sustainability practices. And with the proliferation of high quality local eateries, it’s clear that El Pasoans have never taken their interest in food more seriously than they do now.
New demands prompt business changes
The grocery landscape has evolved as well, and not only through the arrival of Sprouts (formally Sun Harvest) and Whole Foods. Carlos Loweree, produce buyer at the locally owned Food City stores, has seen the change firsthand.
Founded by his grandfather Jose Santos in 1972 on Stanton Street, the grocery, now with three locations, has always been aware of evolving tastes.
“We started offering (organic produce) in the spring of 2015 after researching local growers at the Downtown and Ardovino’s famers markets,” Loweree said. “We started because it was the most sustainable supply chain for us and our customers. We are locally owned and operated and feel it added to our mission and vision to bring those farmers’ harvests to our shelves and our customers’ pantries.”
The reception, he said, has been very strong, and orders have been scaled up to match demand.
“I feel when it comes to food trends, El Paso is right in front,” Loweree continued. “Our Hispanic culture places a premium on what we cook and eat.”
Think inside the box
Adriana Clowe of El Paso True Food believes El Pasoans are also becoming more adventurous with their food choices. El Paso True food is a community supported agriculture group that offers boxes of produce for pickup each week at various locations around town.
“There’s a strong local food movement happening and more consumers are being conscious of where they spend their dollar,” she said. “Our members are drawn to the element of surprise that comes with receiving a Food Box. There’s this excitement that takes over when you open your very own box of local organic produce and find that one item you’ve never tried before.”
In 2015, when El Paso True Foods began, the group worked with as many local farms as possible. Currently, they use a core group, including Taylor Hood Farms in Las Cruces and Sol y Tierra Producers Cooperative, allowing them to make a larger investment in the farms while in turn providing a steady box program. They have also formed partnerships with smaller farms that grow specific items such as herbs, mushrooms or fruit.
El Paso True food typically does 25 boxes a week, Clowe said, but is conscious of balancing increased business with the needs of the farmers. She is hopeful that demand will increase.
“We have to be conscious of the balance between the growth of the box program and the growth of our farms,” she said. “The more we can show a demand for our local foods and the box program, the more we can invest in the growth of our local farms. Which is, of course, the ultimate goal.”
Bowie Bear necessities
Food literacy and education is not just for chefs and foodies; there’s an effort being made to increase awareness among El Paso’s youth as well. Home economics classes, once a mainstay of high school education, have become less common. But one El Paso area school is determined to teach kids some of that course’s core values.
Victor Martel, Bowie High School magnet coordinator, helps spearhead the efforts of the school’s Oso Good Food truck. The truck is an extension of the culinary arts program, which is run at the EPISD Center for Career and Technology Education. It’s scheduled to begin operating in February and will be managed by students, who will also be responsible for promotion and advertising.
“[Whole Foods donated] half of the funds that we needed,” he said. “Along with that comes the opportunity to sell clean, healthy organic food out of our food truck.”
Bowie also operates an almost football-field sized community garden on premises, yielding produce that is then sold at the Downtown farmers market and to a handful of local chefs. Some of that food will also be used for the food truck.
“Our garden ¬is pesticide free; it’s about as clean produce as you can get,” Martel said. “We have tomatoes, chiles, beets, cucumbers. We hope to use those ingredients in our salsa, maybe making fruit salad. We’re looking at smoothies. Healthy options is really our goal.”
Martel agrees that the borderland is coming around to the idea of healthy eating.
“They’re finding it’s necessary, with the fact that we are Hispanic and are so prone to diabetes,” Martel said. “We want to extend our lives as much as possible.”
Back to our roots
These currents trends have also revived interest in food production and processes that were popular in previous generations. Only now, they are seen as ways to keep a community healthy and vibrant rather than as a means of survival through harsh changes in seasons.
Zumbido Farms partner Michael Duchouquette started off beekeeping as a hobby, first setting up a hive in his garden, then seeking out mentorship from a reluctant apiarist in the valley. When the mentor became partially disabled, he asked Douchouquette to help him find a place to sell his honey.
“One day I was sitting at my desk and I decided to email The Greenery and ask them what types of honey they were using, how much they were paying,” Duchouquette said. “I told them that I had some raw local honey and a quantity that I could sell. [Mark Heins, former Greenery owner and now manager at Whole Foods] called me back two hours later and told me he was sitting in Boulder at the Whole Foods regional headquarters and that my email came to him during his training session about sourcing local honey.”
Over the next 90 days, Duchouquette began his journey from hobbyist to honey supplier, sourcing local, unprocessed honey and working with a bottler in Las Cruces to package the product.
A slow but steady growth
Throughout his work, Duchouquette gained a new appreciation for the strides El Paso has made
“El Paso is a little bit behind, but when you dive down deep enough and you look, and you find El Paso True Foods and these other types of companies that are received by the community, you start to realize that a lot of people are concerned [about healthy eating],” he said. “We have great produce and farming all the way up and down the valley.”
Although Duchouquette is excited by the city’s move toward a better understanding and appreciation of various foodways, he believes there is still a way to go.
“For the most part, it depends on the community,” he said. “Buying organic food costs more. It takes a little bit of education and commitment by individuals to their health to eat right and start taking care of themselves.
“I do think El Paso can support this kind of trend. We never really had that served up before.”
Tara Livingston, owner of Nosh, a boutique salad bar in Montecillo, agrees that education is a fundamental stepping-stone in El Paso’s food revolution. The Nosh concept connects positivity to healthy eating and seeks to connect with local farmers not just for produce, but to create a food waste prevention program.
“We would like to see El Paso consumers understand the whole process of food, from farm to mouth all the way to sustainability,” Livingston said.
“El Paso is tough. As a city we are lacking a lot of education on trending issues and unfortunately follow chain concepts,” she said. “People are ready [for healthier options]; it’s up to us as locals to make these concepts happen.”