By Kayvan Khalatbari
Published Issue 029, May 2016
Food insecurity is the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food based on a lack of financial and other resources. It is not our government’s definition of “hunger.” It is a broader term that describes outright hunger and the coping mechanisms that households use to avoid that hunger. Food insecurity is a social justice issue that bleeds into discussions concerning education, poverty and race, and should not be viewed as having a one-size-fits-all solution. Currently, about 1 in 7 Coloradans are food insecure.
Food Swamps are communities, which are flooded with unhealthy, highly processed, low-nutrient food combined with disproportionate advertising for unhealthy food compared to wealthier neighborhoods. The negative effects on people related to food insecurity are often exacerbated by food swamps filled with McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell, which propel obesity rates, because they often serve as the only affordable option for “sustenance” in these areas. Food swamps help perpetuate food insecurity and ensure that the outcome is much worse than hunger alone. Denver is littered with food swamps, most notably in the northeast neighborhoods of Clayton, Cole, Elyria-Swansea, Five Points, Globeville, North Park Hill, Northeast Park Hill, Skyland and Whittier.
As Denver continues its dramatic growth spurt, there’s a certain level of shared obligation to shine light on some issues we all see or experience every day, some of which are spreading without a clear solution in sight. We are a community struggling to pay a fair wage to our workers, offer available affordable housing and care for the homeless, feed our children and maintain artistic communities, and we contend with one of the most abusive and racially-biased police forces in the country. Denver isn’t perfect, and that’s not the goal, but we can do better. That begins with understanding our complications, knowing what others in our community are already doing towards resolving them, and finding collaboration in our voices and efforts in order to have the greatest impact.
In a time when national politics have become about as insufferable as they can possibly be, we should find comfort in the fact that the solutions to most social problems are ignited on a local level by local people, and Denver is brimming with the intelligent progressives in art, civics and entrepreneurship to impact this particular issue. We collaborate and we communicate. After all:
“If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.” — Margaret Fuller
Hunger is nothing new, even in America, where 15 percent of our population lives in a food insecure scenario. That’s 48,100,000 human beings (source: FeedingAmerica.org), which is appalling for a country as wealthy and progressive as this one is. But it’s not a lack of food production that is the problem. Rather, it’s the national and international scale of this production, processing and distribution system we’ve come to embrace in this country, which is highly corporatized and creates a level of food waste that is staggering. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled at the fact that I can get a gooseberry or mangosteen any time of the year in Denver, but more local solutions are what’s needed if we’re going to put a dent in this epidemic and take control of our food system.
Let’s take the other important topics related to food production such as organics, GMOs and the like out of the equation for a minute and just focus on the quantity of food in its totality. Each year in this country, we throw away 70,000,000,000 pounds of food because it didn’t survive arbitrary aesthetical standards, was in transportation or processing for too long and for too great a distance, was part of an overstocked grocery store product display, carried a premature sell-by date, or was thrown away by the end consumer, who is ultimately responsible for over 60 percent of that total waste each year. Doing some quick math, that total amount of wasted food spread over those hungry humans mentioned above equates to about 4 pounds of food per person, per day, which is just under the average rate of adult consumption of 5.5 pounds per day. The infographic on the next page illustrates the food waste in the United States at each level of production, processing and distribution.
We are all wasteful. We’re egregious consumers hell-bent on convenience, variety and perfection, and we’re almost oblivious to it. We see hunger, homelessness and indigence every day right in front of us, so much so that we’ve become numb to the scene. Marry that with the fact that each of us deal with our own personal issues every day just to get by, and our meager individual efforts may seem useless in providing relief to larger systemic problems such as food insecurity. But we need to start somewhere and there are already people working hard every day to create that groundswell of change needed, everyday people who can and are making a difference. They simply need our help to grow and become more visible and influential.
I have to admit when I first started working on this piece I thought I knew a thing or two and could easily just go speak with a few folks, fill in the holes in my understanding and call it a day. What I found when I dug a little deeper was not only that the problem was larger than I thought, but that there are already so many different initiatives in play in Denver to help find resolve. Here are three of them:
I started by reaching out to Denver Food Rescue, whose mission is to increase health equity in Denver by reducing barriers to fresh, healthy food in low-income and food swamp communities. Using primarily bicycle power, they distribute highly perishable food from grocery stores and farmers markets, which would otherwise go to landfills, directly to No Cost Grocery Programs in underserved areas. These No Cost Grocery Programs now exist in nine communities within Denver and are run by residents who live in these areas, which helps to empower them to take ownership in supporting their communities and furthering their own local solutions. Unfortunately, even with the passing of the Federal Good Samaritan Food Donation Act in 1996, which protects grocery stores from civil and criminal liability should the product donated in good faith later cause harm to the recipient, most big box suppliers such as Walmart refuse to donate their aging produce and instead still send it to landfills.
Regarding smaller retail outlets, one of the primary reasons a small “supermarket” like the one pictured doesn’t carry fresh produce is due to their inability to sell the quantities that would be delivered to them by food distribution companies. Pallets or boxes of a single item type just won’t move quickly enough in a small store before they spoil, which leads to smaller convenience stores carrying exclusively unhealthy, nonperishable items. Another curious note I came across in my discussions is food banks are generally found outside of the food swamps of Denver, compounding the lack of food resources available to residents. Regardless, these food banks contend with food spoilage, lacking the resources and space for adequate refrigeration, and therefore deal primarily with those nonperishable options as well.
Just in the couple hours I spent following them around, Denver Food Rescue was able to load up, transport and deliver over 500 pounds of fresh food directly to No Cost Grocery Programs in north Denver. They do this twice a day, every day. To learn more about Denver Food Rescue and how you can get involved, visit their website at www.denverfoodrescue.org.
One of the recipients of the donations delivered by Denver Food Rescue that day was The GrowHaus, located in a historic 20,000-square-foot greenhouse within the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood of north Denver. Although The GrowHaus operates as a No Cost Grocery Program outlet, they also provide so much more and are ultimately committed to offering food year-round with minimum inputs. It’s about sustainability with these folks, which is the foundation of a locally controlled food system that employs community-oriented urban farming techniques. They educate city and state officials about food security issues and potential solutions, talk to members of the community about cultivation and nutrition, and open their doors to all who are interested in learning more or getting involved. Really, GrowHaus says it all with their vision of “a world where all communities have the means to nourish themselves.”
I went there on a Saturday when they are normally closed to the public, but when I walked inside I discovered the place never stopped operating. One of the tenants in the greenhouse is Colorado Aquaponics, a for-profit aquaponics company that has partnered with The GrowHaus and provides aquaponic training, curriculum, consulting and support programs that are delivered to individuals, schools, institutions and communities looking to take charge of their own sustainable farming and food security. The woman who owns and operates the farm was just finishing giving instruction to a class of 15 people on how to build, operate and maintain a aquaponics garden, which ended with folks picking fresh greens that they enjoyed as part of lunch after class. A secondary seminar on permaculture was taking place in another room, all while Denver Food Rescue unloaded fresh produce into a large refrigerated storage container on the side of the building. Add to it their “edible ecosystem,” composting activities, rabbits and chickens, a mushroom farm, a tool library and an ongoing internship program, and this place was brimming with life in one of the most neglected neighborhoods in Denver.
This is a neighborhood at the core of municipal conversations regarding gentrification similar to what is going on in adjacent RiNo, homelessness, cannabis business saturation and the much-maligned burying of I-70, all of which have and will continue to negatively impact residents, according to their loudest community leaders anyways. Time will tell, but whatever happens, I think we can be certain The GrowHaus will maintain its position as a local steward of accountability, innovation and wellness. To learn more, visit www.thegrowhaus.org.
The last stop of the day was on the southwest side of town in the neighborhood of Westwood where Re:Vision operates out of a colorful building on Morrison Road. Re:Vision is a food and social justice non-profit with a goal to empower residents in economically marginalized neighborhoods, develop leaders, cultivate community food systems, and create an economy owned by the community. If there is a neighborhood to drive this mission in, Westwood is it, where residents have a life expectancy that is 12 years lower than any other neighborhood in Denver, largely due to a lack of fresh food and public parks, combined with very limited walkability and a disconnect from the city at large. Not only that, but Westwood has the largest youth population in Denver, the highest rate of childhood obesity and the second highest poverty rates in the city.
One of the most important functions they serve right now is helping neighborhood residents establish gardens on their properties through their Backyard Gardens program, which is led by 12 Promotoras who are employed by Re:Vision. Promotoras are local residents who are trained to provide basic health education in the community without being professional health care workers. In Re:Vision’s case, they take these technical skills related to building and maintaining a home garden, as well as those concerning food’s nutritional impact, and share them with their community by establishing gardens for residents on their own properties, which Re:Vision manages through grow agreements with residents. These Promotoras are paired with several families, which they visit weekly, not only passing along these lessons, but helping to weave together a community of education, support and security. Re:Vision provides the compost, irrigation supplies and seeds needed to ensure these families have what they need to do this right. The hope is that the students in this equation become Promotoras themselves and push that mission forward to more of those in need. Last year alone, this program served more than 400 families in the Westwood neighborhood, cultivating 55,000 pounds of fresh food and collectively saving those families over $95,000.
This isn’t even close to the end of Re:Vision’s plans which include moving across the street from their current offices to their new, larger home, which is starting to develop rapidly. This new site sits on 1.7 acres, which used to be a dilapidated junkyard, and was acquired through a $1.3 million grant from the Denver Office of Economic Development in 2014. It will include those offices, but also a project that has been in the making for a couple years now called the Westwood Food Cooperative, which will be the first co-op (member owned) grocery store in Denver since the Common Market closed its doors in 1980. More importantly, it’s the first grocery store in the Westwood neighborhood since the 1990s, and is one of the first grocery stores in the country owned by a community living in a food desert. This is a big deal, and their growth doesn’t stop there, with plans for outdoor farm plots, greenhouses, an education and fitness center, community spaces for events, an incubator kitchen for small businesses to get off the ground and more. This project is going to transform this neighborhood in dramatic fashion and is a great example of what can happen when a city, residents and private industry work together for the greater good. To learn more about how to help further Re:Vision’s mission, please visit www.revision.coop.
These are just three of several groups in the city who are working towards reinventing Denver’s food system and ensuring that healthy food exists as a right for everyone and not a privilege only for some. They don’t focus on the neighborhoods that are convenient to their own lives, but those that are in the most need, because those are the folks who often have the quietest voice. They do so by initiating collaboration between the city, private business, residents, you and me. This solution is about working together collectively as a city, forgiving our differences and letting our individual efforts amplify through cooperation. It is the only way we will regain our food security.