Acequia Institute in San Luis aims to make “food the medicine” of Costilla County

By cvlopez |
photos courtesy Acequia Institute


DEVON Peña and The Acequia Institute in San Luis just landed a $1.5 million grant from the Colorado Health Foundation that promises to restore the Culebra River Acequia Communities of Costilla County to its healthy foods heritage.

The initiative “Growing a Healthy Community Foodscape, Food System & Food Economy for the Culebra River Acequia Communities” was awarded the funding over a two-year period. The most immediate work and initially most visible part of the effort is to finalize purchase of the R&R Market in San Luis and continue with its restoration and upgrade which has started through other grants. 

“We’re excited and nervous at the same time,” said Peña in an interview with Alamosa Citizen. “Our foundation seeks to make food our medicine again. Our pharmacy is in the garden.”

Devon Peña Devon Peña

The bold and comprehensive strategy includes:

  • Establishing a Food & Community Revolving Credit Association (RCA) that provides zero percent interest credit to local agriculture and food producers.
  • Creating a Milpa/Molino/Masa harina Marketing Collaborative that assists acequia farmers in transitioning from cow and alfalfa reliance to an “agroecosystem that includes growing traditional non-GMO corn and associated companion crops.” The farming effort involves producing companion plants like beans (bolita, fava), squash, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, chard, spinach, beets, and other crops that are part of the region’s traditional and healthier adopted diets, according the prospectus for the grant. 
  • Integrating youth and young adults into all of the stages of the collaborative through the Move Mountains Youth Leaders Partnership which supports young people (teenagers and young adults through their 30s) in growing food for elders and families; participating in the design and operation of the grocery and community food center; and developing their own food production and value-added food enterprises, among other youth-led efforts.

“The underlying objective of this project,” said Peña, “is to improve long-term community health through a resurgence of food sovereignty by reviving and strengthening the local agri-food system, rebuilding our polyculture agroecosystem traditions, unleashing the creativity and commitment among our youth and younger adults by participating in and establishing a set of local institutions to generate and keep our agriculture-generated wealth in the community.

“What concerns us is that our county also has some of the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in Colorado. According to one recent report, 25.4 percent of the population in Costilla County is obese while 41 percent is overweight (Costilla County Public Health Agency 2018), more than twice the statewide rates. The same report indicates that 13.3 percent of the Costilla County population is currently diagnosed with diabetes compared to the Colorado rate of 5.6 percent. Among epigenetic factors, diet is strongly associated with emergent conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular illnesses. The evidence suggests community health and well-being in the acequia villages are casualties of the enclosure of the common lands and the dramatic long duration effects including the diminishment of our food sovereignty and healthier heritage foodways.”

It’s a heady effort that now has major investment from the state’s largest health foundation. The Colorado Health Foundation grant to The Acequia Institute announced Tuesday is among the single largest grants awarded to a San Luis Valley non-profit organization and community.

San Luis food grow San Luis food grow
San Luis Garden San Luis Garden

Other notable recent awards include a 2020 Great Outdoors Colorado $1.9 million grant to SLV Generation Wild through the city of Alamosa, and a $2.3 million RISE grant from the state of Colorado to a group of nonprofits working with Adams State on youth development. Antonito, also this week, received a $1 million grant from the Colorado Office of Economic Development & International Trade to restore the S.P.M.D.T.U., Sociedad Protección Mutua de Trabajadores Unidos building, on its main drag.

“Support for this initiative will increase food sovereignty and security while strengthening the local agriculture-food system in Costilla County,” the Colorado Health Foundation said in its award letter. “Local agriculture traditions will be rekindled, the San Luis grocery store will be renovated and expanded, a new commercial kitchen will increase production of local value added foods, and youth will reconnect to the land, acequias, and healthy food while developing skills that will support them to remain in their villages and secure employment.”

The youth component may be the most challenging of The Acequia Institute’s strategy. Like other communities in the San Luis Valley, San Luis struggles to keep its youth in the community and to find a next generation to maintain and sustain operations. 

This past summer teen farmers, as part of a trial run for the grant, were paid $15 per hour to grow and maintain a one-acre garden. For the summer of 2022 the program will pay $17 per hour. Scholarships, training and internships in trade specialties needed in the agricultural community, an emergency fund for youth and young adults, and a paid staff member for counseling services are all part of the youth efforts under the grant.

“We still face the challenge of the next generation,” Peña said. “So we’re already working on youth leader development.”

Acequia Institute Acequia Institute

Originally from Laredo, Texas, Peña first came to San Luis in 1984 as an assistant professor for Colorado College in Colorado Springs. A few years later, while on a field trip with Colorado College, he met the late Costilla County Commissioner Joe Gallegos who invited him to get involved with San Luis.

It was with Gallegos’ nudge that Peña started to more intently learn about the acequia farming system, the issues of Costilla County, and the plight of the land. In 2005 Peña established The Acequia Institute, and by 2007 he continued his transition by spending at least half his time living in San Luis while also teaching at the University of Washington in Seattle, a position he still holds. Only now he resides full-time in the outlying area of San Francisco, a few miles east of the town, where he’s neighbors as the country roads go with Costilla County’s two world-renowned artists, sculptor Huberto Maestas and muralist Carlos Sandoval.

“My proudest accomplishment is helping the land heal,” he said. “That’s what I’m most proud of is repairing the damage to the land.”

Cottonwoods and willows have come back along the river corridor through a conservation easement that was put in place. The feeling of neighbors looking after each other, whether it’s through growing and sharing food, or learning new ways to do business in a technology-driven society, has San Luis and Costilla County looking ahead. 

Devon Peña
Devon Peña

While the state of Colorado commonly refers to San Luis as the oldest town in the state, Peña has flipped it by saying San Luis is the “last town in Mexico, not the oldest in Colorado.” It’s his way of recognizing the land history of Costilla County and forcing a different interpretation of San Luis as he and The Acequia Institute work to re-establish its cultural heritage to the land and farming system.

He promises accountability and transparency to the San Luis community with the health foundation grant, and said he won’t draw a salary for the work because he’s already paid well through his professor work at the University of Washington.

His persistent rap about San Luis, work of The Acequia Institute and efforts to highlight the plight of local farmers, and his willingness to challenge traditional power structures of the San Luis Valley which he says have worked against San Luis and its interests, has won him audiences and influence.

National Geographic recently featured the community, and  a grocery chain is expressing interest in carrying food grown through the program as part of its store offerings.

“The goal is to address community health through making good, fresh healthy food,” said Peña, and then making it available beyond San Luis and the R&R Market. He’s purchased two corn mills so that corn grown by the farmers can be turned into tortillas which can then be offered with other fresh food efforts locally.

The Revolving Credit Association (RCA) is the key to the plan, “the operational heart and soul of the entire project as it revives the soft infrastructure of our cultural heritage including the solidarity norms expressed in our acequia associations, land grant councils, and mutual aid and cooperative labor traditions and institutions,” according to the project prospectus.

The grant will help finalize purchase of the R&R Market in San Luis and continue with its restoration and upgrade, which has started through other grants.  The grant will help finalize purchase of the R&R Market in San Luis and continue with its restoration and upgrade, which has started through other grants. 

Peña has patterned the RCA after the S.P.M.D.T.U., a Society for the Mutual Protection of Workers popular in the early 1900s to protect Hispanic property rights and fight discrimination. He sees the model as fitting for the type of rebirth of the community farmer that the project envisions.

The plan relies on local farmers committing one acre of their land for community growing, with a goal of 20 farmers participating in the effort. Over time the project is shooting for 1,000 acres set aside for community purposes out of the 23,000 acres of acequia irrigated farm land in the southern half of Costilla County.

It gets back to the community eating healthy with the assistance of local growers. “We are just as responsible as anyone for the failing health of our communities,” Peña said.

Of the request for farmers to set aside an acre for community purposes, Peña said, “We’re very happy with the response of the farmers around here.”

His role, he said, is to bring resources into the community and then to let community leaders like Shirley Romero-Otero and others take over.

“Colorado Health Foundation thinks we’re on the right track,” said Peña.

Indeed it does.

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