Grow Local Colorado works to fight hunger with urban agriculture | TheFencePost.com

Grow Local Colorado works to fight hunger with urban agriculture

Nikki Work | Fence Post Editorial Assistant

Earlier this summer at Metro CareRing, a charity that aids those living with hunger and poverty in Denver, a young woman was being shown the different food stores available to her.

When her eyes stopped on the section of fresh produce, she started crying.

"When asked why, she said she didn't think that people would think she deserved good food like that," said Barbara Masoner, co-director of Grow Local Colorado along with Dana Miller. "It is really heartbreaking."

It's moments like this that Masoner and Miller hope to change.

Grow Local Colorado, founded in 2009, aims to increase the prominence of urban agriculture and raise awareness for the need for fresh, local produce in Colorado communities.

"Our mission is growing local food, local economy and local community, so it was really about those three things that we see very intimately intertwined," Miller said. "It turned out that growing food was one of the things that really showed up as something we could do relatively quickly and in some wonderful ways here in Denver."

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Grow Local Colorado partners with other area groups to operate and maintain 11 vegetable gardens throughout the metro area. The yields produced from these gardens are then taken to local charities and food pantries.

Last year, Grow Local Colorado's gardens produced a collective yield of more than 3,600 pounds of produce, valued at $7,500.

"I think that traditionally, food pantries have gotten the dregs of food," Miller said. "There's a real movement now, of food pantries all across the country, to do more healthy food pantry initiatives. Even a few years ago, everyone thought you couldn't actually take fresh produce into a food pantry. There really are no barriers."

Each of Grow Local Colorado's gardens is maintained by a different volunteer group, ranging from community to church to nonprofit organizations.

One of the gardens is located at The Governor's Residence at the Boettcher Mansion in Denver, where volunteers from various organizations plant, tend and harvest food for Metro CareRing.

"The Governor's Residence had previously entertained the idea of growing vegetables to offer to community groups, however we didn't have the staff or resources to make that happen," said James Finnerty, residence director of the Colorado Governor's Residence. "When GrowLocal approached us and offered to plant, maintain and fully manage vegetable gardens at the Residence we jumped at the opportunity to enter into a partnership. Although we are proud of our beautifully landscaped gardens it is very heartwarming to see a portion of the grounds being used to provide healthy food for those in need."

Another organization that benefits from a Grow Local garden is The Gathering Place.

"The Gathering Place is Denver's only day center for women, children and transgender folks experiencing poverty and/or homelessness," said Emily Wheeland, food services manager at The Gathering Place. "In the summer and fall we receive food from many community gardens and from several individuals who donate food from their own personal gardens. The investment of groups like Grow Local in organizations like The Gathering Place is crucial in our ability continue leveling out the nutritional playing field for our members today and for those in the future in order to give them a healthy, filling foundation with which to approach their rest of their days and lives."

According to Masoner, the donations that Grow Local gardens bring to local charities are always welcomed and appreciated by not only the organization, but the patrons.

"Occasionally, I had the opportunity to take harvest from our different gardens to either food pantries or into women's shelters or youth shelters," Masoner said. "There's never been a time when I have dropped off that I haven't had the clients or the recipients that have been there that said what an incredible gift that is and how much they appreciate that."

Grow Local Colorado is also a part of a larger, statewide collaboration called Produce for Pantries, which encourages home, school and community gardens to donate their yields to local pantries to help those who otherwise have no access to healthful food.

According to Wheeland, the work done by Grow Local Colorado, Produce for Pantries and similar organizations, fills a need of many charitable organizations. That need isn't going anywhere soon.

"While statistics and studies show that there is enough food in this country to feed everyone in this country, hunger rates are staggering and the problem lies in an unequal distribution of goods," Wheeland said. "The donation of produce from community gardens and individuals to The Gathering Place and organizations like it, is doing the important work of ensuring that food that might otherwise go to waste is being funneled to people who are in need and spreading out the nutritional wealth a little more evenly.

"When people aren't hungry or worrying about where their next meal is coming from, they are better situated to do the more important personal growth work of their lives," Wheeland said. "Being able to give this small gift to our members is an honor for me and we at The Gathering Place are grateful for the support and investment of groups like Grow Local who help us, one pound of greens or bunch of carrots at time, ease the burden of poverty and homelessness for our clients so that they might someday find their way into easier and more positive life circumstances."

The need for fresh, locally grown produce reaches beyond just food pantries, though. Both Masoner and Miller point to the expansion of urban agriculture as a way for communities to solve more problems than just hunger.

"I think one of the reasons why urban agriculture and the local food movement has gained the momentum it has is because it's something that people can do and they feel like they're making a difference," Masoner said. "Local food addresses so many of the issues that have become prominent with a variety of age groups with climate change, with overpopulation, with problems with our infrastructure crumbling. Local food is the way that people can make a difference and help themselves."

Miller also works with the Denver Sustainable Food Policy Council, who has been working closely with the Denver City Council to change the city's zoning codes to allow residents to grow food in their yards, then sell it from their homes as a home occupational business.

The measure goes before the city council July 14, where Miller said she is 99.9 percent sure it will pass.

However, Grow Local Colorado isn't looking to take food production out of the field and into the cities. Rather, they recognize the need for both styles of farming and encourage rural producers to help find and create new ways to bring their food to the community's collective table.

"We want people to appreciate their farmers and support them. One of our missions is local economy, and a big part of that is making sure that Colorado farmers are benefitting from this movement," Masoner said. "People are wanting fresher food and they are wanting to know who's growing their food. Hopefully, more and more of Colorado's farmers are going to take advantage of that and reach out not just through farmers markets, but through other means of getting their food to other Coloradans." ❖