A breastfeeding support group, a nonprofit garden and a vegan restaurant in El Paso are searching for new homes after their building was sold and they cannot afford a new lease.

The 901 Arizona Avenue building in Central El Paso, owned for decades by First Christian Church, houses two operations connected to each other: Planty for the People, a garden and nonprofit that teaches people how to grow food, and One Grub Community Diner, a restaurant that focuses on plant ingredients.

Another local nonprofit, El Jardín Birth and Family Resource Center, also hosts a breastfeeding support group once a week in a room down the hallway from the restaurant. The free meetup provides guidance and emotional support to mothers who are struggling to breastfeed. The event serves as a casual hangout space for breastfeeding families, pregnant people and birth workers.

Jonathan Pierre Hernandez, the agent for Spaghetti Bowl Properties, said his company had been in talks with First Christian Church for a year or so before purchasing the building in late May. The church, whose membership has declined over the years, wanted a smaller and more manageable space.

The new owner’s goal is to find a single tenant for the whole building in the next six months. If unsuccessful, Spaghetti Bowl Properties will look into multiple tenants, Hernandez said.

The building’s current tenants said the church informed them of its intention to sell the building, but allege Hernandez misled them into thinking they could stay.

Libby Berkeley, executive director of El Jardín Birth & Family Resource Center, talks through challenges and successes with breastfeeding mothers on Aug. 12, 2022. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Libby Berkeley, a public health advocate and certified lactation consultant, has run the breastfeeding support group since 2008 when it began as the Baby Cafe at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso. 

El Jardín runs on donations. It had a written agreement with First Christian Church to pay $50 a month for the room, the church’s interim pastor confirmed. Berkeley said in phone calls prior to the sale, Hernandez promised that Spaghetti Bowl Properties would not force El Jardín to move out. 

Then in June, after she emailed Hernandez for a rental agreement, he replied, “I am sorry but I do not think we can commit to a long term lease,” according to emails provided by Berkeley to El Paso Matters.

Hernandez confirmed there was email communication and said that El Jardín does not have to vacate the building unless Spaghetti Bowl Properties finds a new tenant for their space.

“We have to make improvements to the building and would love to have El Jardín there, but their budget is almost nonexistent,” Hernandez said. “There are certainly no plans to kick El Jardín out, but at the same time we can’t really have a building renting out offices at $50 a month. There has to be some kind of compromise.”

Michelle Rubalcaba breastfeeds her son, 2-month-old Thiago Ruba, during a support group for mothers at El Jardín Birth & Family Resource Center on Aug. 12. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Michelle Rubalcaba, who’s pregnant with her second child in El Paso, said she worries about the future of El Jardín.

“I was really looking forward to taking my new baby, even if no issues or challenges come up, but just for hanging out with the moms – especially because I’m a stay-at-home mom and these are my group of friends I get to see once a week,” she said.

Rubalcaba joined the breastfeeding support group two months after her son Thiago was born in June 2022. A lactation consultant at their hospital spent about 20 minutes trying to coax her son into latching onto her breast, but they were not successful, she remembered.

Breastfeeding was an excruciating experience after she was released from the hospital. She considered giving up because of the physical pain until her doula recommended El Jardín. Berkeley helped her adjust Thiago’s latch position, as well as the way she held him that would ease the pain from pregnancy-related tendonitis in her wrists, she said. 

Once breastfeeding no longer hurt, Rubalcaba continued meeting with the group not only to socialize, but also for the guest speakers who gave demonstrations about how to wrap babies, the variety of breast pumps and baby communication.

“It’s helpful to have moms on the same journey as you at the same time,” Rubalcaba said. “If I went, if anything came up, someone always had a tip for something.”

Executive chef Roman Wilcox, top right, speaks to employees as his staff works on the specialty plant-based meals that One Grub Community Diner is known for. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Roman and Adriana Wilcox, the owners of One Grub Community Diner, also feel uncertain about their future.

The couple started One Grub as a food truck, then opened it in 2019 as a sit-down restaurant with a “social interest,” Roman said. The restaurant offers vegan spins on popular dishes, such as lion’s mane mushroom menudo, hearts of palm ceviche and tacos filled with nopales and seitan-based arrachera. In the pay-it-forward program, customers can donate toward a meal for someone who can’t afford one. 

Roman heads the kitchen while Adriana leads Planty for the People, a nonprofit extension from the restaurant that includes a garden outside. Planty for the People teaches people how to grow food in the desert with organic practices, she said. 

Adriana Wilcox, co-founder of One Grub Community and Planty for the People, stands in the community garden at the property of the former First Christian Church on Arizona Avenue. Wilcox and her co-founder, Roman Wilcox, fear they will be forced out of the property due to changes in their lease terms. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Adriana said they wanted to put down roots at 901 Arizona Ave. and cultivate a community space. 

Volunteers, from neighbors to college students, volunteer at the garden every week. On Saturdays they host a mini farmers’ market inside. The nonprofit also started a seed collection with donated seeds and seeds collected from their own harvests, she said. In 2022, Roman competed in the HBO Max cooking competition “The Big Brunch” in hopes of winning the $300,000 prize to expand their operations. He made it to the semifinals creating vegan dishes, like his version of chicken and waffles.

Alfonso Valdez, a volunteer, harvests the blooms from sunflowers before cutting back the stalks at the Planty for the People garden on June 28. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Conversations with Hernandez in the months prior to the building’s sale made it seem like One Grub Community Diner was going to be a long-term anchor tenant at the building and rent would remain the same, Adriana said. Then in June, Spaghetti Bowl Properties offered a six-month contract that doubles their monthly payment and saddles them with responsibility for systems in the entire building, such as the faulty plumbing, she said.

Hernandez confirmed he offered a six-month lease, but added One Grub Community Diner and Planty for the People have the possibility of staying afterward if Spaghetti Bowl Properties does not find a tenant who wants to rent the entire building. 

“We’d love to have One Grub there if they choose,” he told El Paso Matters.

Adriana said she doesn’t know when One Grub and Planty for the People will move – it could be as early as next month or as late as in six months. The Wilcoxes have started a GoFundMe to raise capital for their likely relocation. Adriana said the ideal place would accommodate both the restaurant and the garden.

The loss of One Grub Community Diner would be a loss for the people who depend on the free meal program every day the restaurant is open, Adriana said Wednesday morning at the garden, where volunteers were trimming sunflowers, watering crops and turning compost piles.

“We are here to make sure people have access to good food and that doesn’t necessarily only span to those that can’t afford it,” she said. “There are those who have dietary restrictions that we also provide access to. It covers more than just socioeconomic issues. We also provide a space for people to build relationships.”

First Christian Church owned the building since it was built in the early 1950s, said interim pastor Dave McVey. The church, which also has a Spanish-speaking congregation, is part of the Protestant denomination Disciples of Christ that grew from the Christian unity movement in the early 1800s.

Over the years, the more than 30,000-square-foot block has provided space to various groups, including El Paso Quakers and Bridges Academy, a school for children with dyslexia, ADHD and autism. 

The church has a more than century-long history in El Paso, but membership has waned, McVey said. At one point, First Christian Church counted about 1,000 members, he estimated. There are now about 60 members and the aging building has become too much for the congregation to maintain, he said.

“It’s a huge, huge expense and the church felt it (the building) wasn’t the right size for the congregation,” McVey said. “We want to be more focused on ministry than upkeep of the building.”

Before finalizing the sale to Spaghetti Bowl Properties last month, the church moved its services to 1340 Murchison Dr. where it rents space from First Presbyterian Church.

Spaghetti Bowl Properties leases other buildings in and around El Paso, including Old Sheepdog Brewery, a warehouse for DeadBeach Brewery and the restaurant El Charlatan. Hernandez also manages operations at his family business TEAMEQUIP, an industrial parts supplier in El Paso.

The Planty for the People community-supported garden is run by Adriana Wilcox and volunteers and interns, who work to grow food and teach gardening and farming techniques. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Berkeley said she has already begun sending out inquiries for a new location for El Jardín. 

“Our mission is to serve everybody,” Berkeley said. “People who can’t pay. Not just people from a certain hospital or birthing center. … If we don’t have a place, I’m pretty sure this is it for us and this is really sad for El Paso.”

Priscilla Totiyapungprasert is a health reporter at El Paso Matters and Report for America corp member. She previously covered food and environment at The Arizona Republic. You can follow her on social...