Healthy Food For All

Denver’s new food vision is recreating the systems of food access across the city. Just months in, the impact is already being felt.  

By Heather Stone

Denver Urban Gardens’ annual plant sale in 2017. (Credit: Denver Urban Gardens)

Denver Urban Gardens’ annual plant sale in 2017. (Credit: Denver Urban Gardens)

There is a vast food system network behind every plate of food brought to the table that quietly fuels Colorado’s economies. Those who are lucky hardly think about the vast, silent networks collaborating to fill their plates; a fully functional food system should ideally be almost invisible. However, many Denverites can’t afford the luxury of not thinking about where their next meal will come from and are forced to confront all of the cracks in the current system. Despite the $7 billion Colorado’s food system generates annually one in five children in the metro area experience hunger and over 33 percent of Denver families eat less than one serving of fruits or vegetables each day, according to a report by the City of Denver. 

A new “food vision” for the city aims to change that.

The plan, adopted in the end of 2017 by the Mayor Michael Hancock, was created by the newly-established Denver Sustainable Food Policy Council (DSFPC). The council is the first of its kind in Denver and one of only about a dozen nationwide. It boasts members from Denver Urban Gardens, Re:vision, Denver Food Rescue, and more, all of whom stress the importance of collaboration between organizations and inclusion of marginalized communities.  

“The Denver food plan has to be about serving all of Denver’s residents,” said Blake Angelo, author of the plan. “If it becomes a ‘foodie person’ plan, we’ve missed the mark. Throughout the Denver food vision you’ll see the direct inclusion and callout of the importance of bringing resources to those who are most vulnerable.”

By 2030, the council aims to address preservation of food culture, eliminating food deserts, creating equitable distribution of healthy food, economic growth, and agricultural resiliency in the face of climate change. To put it more concretely, goals include a seven percent increase in the number of community gardens and five low-income neighborhoods reaching self-defined goals toward a food vision of their own. These targets are based directly on feedback from 11 community meetings across the city in which citizens shared their thoughts about how their current food system serves them and what they want it to look like in the future. 

Before the DSFPC meeting, the majority of participants had never done any sort of civic engagement before and crucially, 90 percent wanted to stay involved going forward. 

“Food is a foray into direct citizen participation,” said Angelo. 

The plan is ambitious, but in order for it to work it has to be. A truly functional food system needs to cover a lot of ground simultaneously and success can look many different ways depending on the communities and individuals who need it. A recent win can be found in Westwood, an 81 percent Hispanic neighborhood and site of the Westwood Food Co-op (WFC) established in 2014. Before the WFC, Westwood had not had a grocery store since the last one closed in the 90s. Now the Co-op stimulates jobs, keeps money circulating within Westwood, promotes backyard gardens, and hosts community events like cooking, agriculture, and healthy living classes.

Eric Kornacki is the executive director of Re:vision, the nonprofit that made the WFC possible. He also advises on the board of the DSFPC. He says that so far, the economic impact of money saved by Westwood residents is hard to measure. 

“For instance, a parent or guardian is saving $300 to $400 on average per year on their groceries by having a garden, but that’s not necessarily getting reported as an economic generator,” he said. The hallmark of a low income or marginalized community is simply that lower amounts of money move through it, so amounts that are significant to individual families are not as significant statistically. However, Kornacki maintains that “food is definitely the center of this economic revitalization, and what we’re seeing is that the process takes longer than may be anticipated.” 

Future plans for Re:vision include a year-round hydroponic farm “that has greater economic potential than some of our seasonal farms,” said Kornacki. “We are looking at that being a sort of workforce training program where people can come get job skills ... serving populations that maybe have historically had a hard time finding jobs or need training or retooling in order to be competitive and get those skills they need to be hired.”

Another focus is developing urban agriculture through all available means – empty lots, rooftops, and even reduced size lawns will all be considered for agriculture. Denver Urban Gardens’ (DUG) “Grow a Garden” program ensures low-income families and seniors access to seeds, seedlings, and gardening classes in hopes that a backyard garden will reduce grocery bills and provide healthy food to those living in a food desert. 

Denver Food Rescue collects produce that would otherwise be thrown away and distributes it to food deserts across Denver. (Credit: Denver Food Rescue)

Denver Food Rescue collects produce that would otherwise be thrown away and distributes it to food deserts across Denver. (Credit: Denver Food Rescue)

The initiative seems to be working: in 2017, 78 percent of program participants increased their consumption of fruits and vegetables and 76 percent lowered their grocery bills. One participant told DUG program directors the program “not only saves us a ton of money, but we know it is fresh, healthy, and free of pesticides. It is also a wonderful family bonding experience and teaches our three girls lessons in responsibility.” 

Tackling all of the disparate issues in the food system simultaneously may seem impossible, especially since so many of them are structural and have solidified over the course of decades. This is where collaboration between organizations is essential. 

“We have over 170 gardens across the Denver area (...) We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without our partnerships,” said Shannon Spurlock, director at DUG and a board member at the DSFPC. These collaborations will ensure that the “living document” of the food vision will stay flexible and address the changing needs of Denver’s growing population.

Board members agree that going forward, the plan will only be successful if it is marked by deliberate, repeated inclusion of low-income, marginalized, or historically forgotten populations like seniors, children, people of color, and people experiencing homelessness. 

“Everyone is welcome to come garden,” said Spurlock. ■