Ajo Cooks Ajo Cooks

Our program begins where low-income Native American and Latina women are already empowered—in their own kitchens, with family and friends. Using the “cafecita” method promoted by Pro-Neighborhoods, we start with multiple small gatherings of about eight women (and sometimes men) around a kitchen table — friends and family talking about favorite recipes and traditions, sharing stories about food, and preparing special dishes for one another.

Ajo Cooks Ajo Cooks

Then there are backyard gatherings — tastings (which are like focus groups). And there are informal workshops to sort out costs and think about marketing. In the process, some women will become interested in catering events, while others will want to use our vending carts to sell in the town plaza (to the million-plus tourists who pass through town each year). Some will develop cultural food products to sell, while others will want to help produce, package, and market the new products. Individuals and families will create micro businesses. Partners will provide access to commercial kitchens and will lend expertise in packaging and promoting cultural foods. Local restaurants will feature new cultural food products on their menus. A vibrant, local cultural food industry will be born in Ajo.

This is the plan for one of ISDA’s programs with generous assistance from the Community Foundation of Southern Arizona and the Ford Foundation, through Leveraging Investments in Creativity (LINC).

Ajo is one of the poorest communities in southern Arizona — the greatest poverty is among Native Americans and Hispanics (median income $14,000 – $16,000). There is currently no prospect of the mine reopening or another industry arriving to offer jobs. This program is a homegrown solution to developing economic opportunity. Ajo Cooks! builds on the assets we have, including a rich multicultural heritage in which people gather all the time around food. And it brings new dollars to the Ajo community by selling to tourists already passing through town and eventually by exporting goods regionally and beyond. True, it does not begin by creating living-wage jobs. But if your family income is $14,000, imagine the difference in quality of life that an additional $4,000 makes in your very first year selling from a food cart in the Plaza.

We anticipate that by the end of the first year, at least 120 low-income participants (primarily women) will gain income-supplementing skills; at least 50 will be engaged in ongoing skill-building activities; at least 20 will have already significantly augmented their income; and at least 10 will be participating in an ISDA matched savings program with a micro business start-up or expansion goal.