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Growing Local in Denver: Food, Economy and Community

Denver2Sometimes it is about being in the right place at the right time. The Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) partnership in Denver, Colorado, knows all about that. It wasn’t too long ago that Jaclyn Cheves, the HKHC project director in Denver, sat down for coffee with Eric Kornacki of Revision International (Revision). Revision is a partner agency that focuses on empowering and sustaining residents in their communities. Eric told Jaclyn about their work with the Somali Bantu refugees and their plans to turn a one acre plot of land in the Westwood community, part of southwest Denver, into an urban farm. This emerging partnership was mutually beneficial because Revision needed more funding and the HKHC partnership wanted to identify an appropriate way to promote urban agricultural that aligned with their goals. This was a perfect fit that ultimately strengthened both efforts.

From Food Desert to Farm
Westwood, a neighborhood of 80% Hispanic/Latino residents, is not only a food desert, but also a very different cultural environment for the refugees. As Eric says, “In Westwood there is a lack of access to food and most people are living below the poverty line and can’t afford to eat healthy.” About six years ago, 40 Somali Bantu families who were farmers in their native land came to this area. When they arrived in Denver, a place with an 120-day growing season, they realized they would not be able to grow food in the same way as in their homeland. Revision and many other partners were working to create new opportunities for healthy food access in Westwood, which is also one of seven neighborhoods where HKHC focuses. This urban farm would not only create opportunities for the Somali Bantu residents, but by allowing all community members to take part in growing their own produce, it could also facilitate new connections across ethnic and cultural lines within Westwood.

Revision was close to solidifying a lease on the land but were short of their fundraising goal and were struggling with how to get water to the site in an affordable way. Many partners began to step up and help, including The Trust for Public Land, The Denver Foundation, Denver Public Health and Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. The project aligned perfectly with some of the HKHC goals, and it made sense for HKHC to add some financial support for operations and other resources. Just as important, the local councilman, Paul López, with the help of Denver Water, waived the water connection fees and subsidized the costs. This put the reality of the project within reach.

Within a week of partnering with Denver HKHC, Revision obtained the lease for the land and now there are tractors, seeds planted and hoop houses for extending the growing season. The urban farm fosters a sense of community and strengthens social cohesion. Jaclyn said, “Now it’s a source of fresh food and cultural connections. Everyone has to eat, and food brings everyone together.” What was once a food desert is now a place where families can grow their own food.

The urban farm complements and enhances Revision’s backyard garden program, an initiative started in 2009 that has trained 168 families to grow their own produce through a promotora model, with support from the Colorado Health Foundation. The backyard garden program has helped families grow over 16,000 pounds of produce. Promotoras are hired from the community by Revision to work one on one with families to plan out what they want to grow, talk about how to do it and help them install the garden plot. Throughout the growing season, each promotora meets with the family and checks in on how things are going. Eric says, “The families might not have any prior experience growing. The promotoras teach as they go,” like coaches. But the job they were doing with the backyard garden project strategically situated them to play a significant role in how the one acre farm would take shape. Once the urban farm became a reality, there were community meetings where the promotoras spread the word and reached out to the Somali Bantu population as well as the Hispanic/Latino residents. Eric is quick to acknowledge the vital role the promotoras play, “They understand the community because they live there…they were an essential piece to bringing everyone together.”

Denver Seeds
But the perfect positioning and timing didn’t stop there. In the summer of 2011 when Michael Hancock, the new mayor, took office, he implemented “Denver Seeds.” This platform seeks to enhance the economy through local food. His website reads, “Denver residents spend over $6 billion each year on food. However, local farms produce less than one-tenth of what we consume. That means we import more than 90 percent of what we eat from outside the metro area, mostly from out of state.” Denver Seeds is intended to link economic development, community development and healthy food access for low-income residents.

Needless to say, there are bottom-up and top-down efforts working simultaneously to make sure all of Denver has access to healthy foods and economic opportunities. The success of the urban farm was facilitated by Revision, but led by the residents. Eric says, “[the community] has been involved since the very beginning, so the ownership is much higher.” Revision’s goals are to build the critical mass in the community for healthy food access, create the capacity for the community to thrive, and build the skills for the community to take ownership.

Other potential projects that the community, Revision and others are interested in exploring include creating a “food hub” to teach healthy cooking classes and provide a space for commercial food processing, creating business development services for residents and bringing more economic opportunity into the neighborhood. The hope is to expand this work and create a food co-op and market, so that it feeds not just the families in the neighborhood, but creates an economic catalyst. Currently there is a feasibility study and capital campaign to bring in a grocery store. As Jaclyn said, “They (Revision) did it the right way. Because it was community led, the people own it.” Even if some of the funding goes away, it is evident that the community will continue with many efforts now that they have seen the power of investing in their own neighborhood. According to Eric, “the root of what we’re trying to do is make strong, healthy communities…and food is one thing we can use to drive that. If we can increase access to healthy food, jobs and capacity in the community, than we’ve accomplished our mission.”

For more information about Revision International, their promotoras model and the Somali Bantu families, visit their website: www.revisioninternational.org

December, 2012