Addressing food insecurity in Denver

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A typical Colorado Spring is finally here. Fresh vegetables will soon be emerging from the soil in community gardens across Denver. These community farms are long-term investments in neighborhoods, with fresh and nutritious food grown locally that ends up on tables in our most vulnerable communities. Food systems tie into issues of equity, education, mental health, transit and so much more. While we have farmers markets in affluent areas, large portions of the city are food deserts with limited access to fresh, nutritious food. On top of that, COVID-19 has negatively impacted food access in Denver and increased the rate of food insecurity.

Growing need

Food insecurity has gotten much worse during the pandemic, as measured by demand at emergency food access points/charitable food providers. They now serve the amount of food they used to serve in a year in a single month. Previously in Colorado, about one in 10 kids were food insecure, and today that number is four in 10. This is an equity issue. More than half of non-white and Latin/Hispanic individuals experience food insecurity. How do you have wealth and abundance in some areas of our city, and in other certain neighborhoods, you can’t get an apple?

As we take steps to overcome the impact of COVID-19 and build back better, food access needs to be prioritized. Pandemic recovery starts with doing the basics and getting people back on their feet. We know that food access is a solvable problem - there’s enough food to go around - but it’s a matter of both logistics and policy to make sure it is distributed within our entire community so that no one is going hungry.

Innovation to prevent displacement

Denver Urban Gardens (DUG) is the largest entity that supports community-based urban gardens in Denver. DUG provides resources which include seeds, plants, tools and training for local farmers, and promotes self-sufficient, community based-gardens. How can we support this network of farms in neighborhoods as skyrocketing property values and development threaten their existence?

One way is by leveraging big-city projects to be transformational around food. Upcoming opportunities in the works include the potential Denver Public Market in Sun Valley and the Globeville Elyria Swansea Public Market at the National Western Center. These and other food markets in areas undergoing redevelopment and displacement can include indoor, year-round farmers markets, mini restaurants and kitchen incubators. These places will draw customers to the enterprises that support the neighborhood economy while nurturing a food ecosystem within the community.

New food and farming technologies, such as hydroponic indoor farming systems, should be part of these efforts. In the face of climate change, technology can be used to generate food year-round for communities, train people on sustainable food growth strategies and help eliminate food deserts. Paired with the enterprise models above and supported by non-profits like Denver Urban Gardens and local food distribution organizations, we can foster small-scale food growth operations in areas of need throughout the city. We have so many grow houses for marijuana and dispensaries in these neighborhoods, so let’s see that industry step up and invest in healthy food growth and distribution.

From a policy perspective, there is a lot that Denver is doing to support local food access. For example, the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment (DDPHE) has its Food System Programs. The various programs focus on everything from food for low-income and at-risk youth to food waste reduction and sustainability, to emergency food relief programs leveraged during critical stages of the pandemic. To learn more, visit https://tinyurl.com/3cf3bvfr.

Deborah Ortega is a councilmember at-large on the Denver City Council. At-large council members represent the city as a whole. She can be reached at ortegaatlarge@denvergov.org.

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