The Front Range’s notably short and unpredictable growing season, and the decline in family farms and ranches, means Denverites and their metro-area neighbors rely heavily on food produced in …
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The Front Range’s notably short and unpredictable growing season, and the decline in family farms and ranches, means Denverites and their metro-area neighbors rely heavily on food produced in faraway places to stock neighborhood stores and, eventually, their kitchen pantries.
Statistics indicate that food travels – on average – 1,500-2,500 miles from barn, field or farm to your table.
“Colorado provides less than 1 percent of the food consumed in the Denver metro area,” said Katherine Cornwell. “That makes us very food insecure, were anything to disrupt the food delivery system.” Cornwell is Denver’s Healthy Eating Active Living program manager, under the auspices of the Department of Environmental Health. She is also a member of Denver’s newly formed Sustainable Food Policy Council (SFPC).
“So much can affect our food supply, whether it’s temporary interruptions – storms or other natural disasters – or potential long-term catastrophes resulting from post-peak oil or global warming. We want to look at opportunities to grow a more robust local food system. It’s critical that our city wake up to how dire our food system is. We could be in big trouble if we don’t get more sustainable and resilient very quickly.”
The SPFC, comprised of some three dozen people representing varied portions of the food system and the agencies with which they interact, was formed to be a clearing house to address issues impacting our food supply, and to interact with others doing similar work.
“The state formed a Food Systems Advisory Council, and we wanted to be sure Denver had a similar vehicle to act as a conduit between city and state. So many people throughout the public and private sectors are working on a variety of challenges. We felt it important to have a group to advise and coalesce groups around the system, and facilitate dialogue around the changes we need,” noted Cornwell.
High on the priority list is improving access to healthful foods in areas known as “food deserts.” These are typically economically challenged communities where food markets often find it difficult to survive. Environmental Health’s Healthy Food Access Task Force (HFTA) is specifically charged with bringing groceries into underserved neighborhoods. The group’s initial success came last year when Colorado Ranch Market opened at a former Safeway location near W. 48th Ave. and Pecos St.
“We’re not focused on trying to open stores,” said Stacey McConlogue, program manager of Denver Healthy People 2020 and an HFATF participant. “Our approach is a policy approach. What we’re trying to do is bring together leadership from different sectors to come to consensus on policy initiatives that might make retail grocery viable in those neighborhoods. We’ve partnered with the Food Trust of Pennsylvania who brought over 1 million square feet of market space into underserved areas.”
Besides the primary objective of providing better food for local residents, “The economic development opportunities are fantastic,” said Cornwell. She says Denverites – many deterred by the state’s overwhelming 26-page application form – pass up millions of dollars of food stamp benefits for which they would otherwise qualify. “In Denver metro alone, it’s $30-$40 million every year. That alone could support two to three groceries every year. Statewide, there’s $755 million on the table.”
Making it easier for residents to produce their own food is another goal of the SPFC. Under current regulations, Denver residents may obtain permits to raise a variety of fowl and livestock on their urban lots. Section 8-91 of the Municipal Code allows for permitting of “any livestock or fowl such as, but not limited to, horses, mules, donkeys, burros, cattle, sheep, goats, swine, chickens, geese, ducks or turkeys” as long as they are kept in environments that “reasonably assure ... that the premises will be maintained in a sanitary condition, free from insects and rodents, offensive odors, excessive noise, or any other conditions which constitute a public nuisance.”
The permitting process now in effect challenges would-be urban ranchers with a complex and lengthy dance, taking potential permit-seekers from the Division of Animal Control to the Zoning Department and back again.
Doug Kelley is Denver’s director of Animal Control. Kelley advises that if somebody wants to raise livestock or fowl in the city, “they should contact us first. We’ll go out and take a look at the property in question, look at their plan for proper disposal of excrement, and why having animals on their property won’t bother the neighbors. Then we’ll prepare a letter saying that we will or won’t oppose their permit request.
“If we approve of their plan, they then need to go to zoning. While it involves some back and forth, it’s best that they come to us first, because zoning immediately assesses a $100 processing fee, and you don’t want to invest the money until you know we approve of the site.” Thus far, according to Kelley, the city has issued about 15 permits for chickens, goats, horses, a pot-bellied pig and sheep.
“From a zoning perspective, we verify that whatever animal is to be permitted doesn’t injure the appropriate use of adjacent property,” said Molly Urbina, deputy manager of Community Planning and Development. “They’re (livestock and fowl) allowed (as a secondary use) in most zone districts, but we look at things like setbacks and location on the property. Then it’s assessed in coordination with Environmental Health.” Permit seekers are required to post a notice on their property advising neighbors of their plans, and announcing a 30-day comment period for those living within 200 feet. Abutting neighbors must be contacted directly.
If, after the comment period expires, the zoning administrator signs off, it’s back to Animal Control to obtain a permit from that office – $50 for fowl and $100 for livestock – which must be renewed annually.
Both Animal Control and CPD are among those working with a Food Producing Animals (FPA) task force to make changes to current law that would enable more people to gather eggs and dairy in their own backyards. The ordinance being prepared would allow eight chickens and two goats as a use by right in all Denver zone districts. A variety of site requirements would ensure the safety and care of the animals as well as the comfort of nearby neighbors.
“We’re trying to create a gate where a labyrinth exists,” said Cornwell. “We want to return a bit of control over the food supply to those who have the interest and wherewithal to care for backyard animals. We’re talking about chickens, and dwarf goats that are smaller than many dogs. They weigh like your average Golden (Retriever), but are stockier and shorter.”
Cornwell has a permit now for six chickens and two goats. “I went through the process. It’s expensive, took a lot of time and was unnecessarily complicated.” A couple of years ago, Denver changed its law to allow residents to keep bees on their property as a use by right. “It used to be the same convoluted process as for chickens and goats. Now you’re allowed two hives in your yard, but there are rules and regulations that are sensitive and protective of the urban residential context.”
While the FPA task force proceeds to develop an ordinance that will go before a vote of City Council, activist James Bertini has grown tired of delay and inaction on the part of the city, and has filed an initiative of his own that he hopes will appear on the May 3 ballot. Bertini, founder of Denver Urban Homesteading, operates his year-round indoor farmers market “and reskilling center” at 200 Santa Fe Dr. Bertini has been advocating for facilitating the maintenance of food-producing animals in Denver backyards for the past few years, and was distressed to not be selected for the FPA working group or the SFPC.
Bertini told The Profile, “Our campaign had tried for two years to convince City Council to change the law but we were unsuccessful. We were specifically promised by Chris Nevitt and Carla Madison that they would tackle this issue in earnest after the zoning ordinance was passed. But when I contacted them in July of last year, both told me they were too busy. Thus, we decided to file this initiative believing that City Council was not doing anything regarding this issue.
“How long should people wait to be able to produce fresh eggs in their backyards for their own consumption? Why are chickens a luxury that many people of modest means cannot afford due to the high permit fee? Why are chickens so difficult to get approved in Denver, but not even a problem in Englewood, Lakewood, Littleton, Centennial, Arvada, Boulder, Longmont, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs? Which sophisticated study is necessary to prove something which is so obvious?”
Cornwell recommended the names for appointment to the FPC, and said she admires Bertini’s work, but “We have an embarrassment of riches with people doing very cool things with the food system. James is one of those people. We just couldn’t include everybody.” Cornwell continued, “He’s an important member of our community doing fantastic work.”
Nevitt believes strongly that Denver must simplify its food-producing animals regulations. “It makes almost no sense right now,” said Nevitt. “You can keep three dogs and five cats, but no more than five animals total as a ‘use by right.’ Also, a certain number of rabbits and pigeons, and some other critters, too. For some reason, chickens and goats aren’t on that list.” Nevitt says the new ordinance has an early buy-in “from Community Planning and Development (CPD), the City Attorney and Animal Control. We think we’re on to something we can get through City Council, with reasonable protections for all sides.”
Nevitt said he asked Bertini to wait until the work of the FPA working group was complete before submitting his initiative. “I went to him and said, ‘I know you feel it’s taking too long and I understand your frustration, but the legislative process tends to have better outcomes.’ My concern is, if he goes to the public with this, and it gets voted down, then the people have spoken – and there will be no will on City Council to pick that ball up again. His initiative has no regulatory safeguards. People may like chickens, but not the lack of safeguards. On the other hand, if Council turns it down first, that’s a political action and we can still work with the pockets of support out there to take this to the public.”
A key element in improving access to adequate nutrition for Denverites is upgrading the food offered to our school children. Leo Lesh is director of Food and Nutrition Services for Denver Public Schools, and a member of the FPC. “We’ve always tried to give our kids the best nutrition possible,” said Lesh. “But products and ideas have changed a lot over the years. We’ve certainly made some drastic changes in the past couple of years. We started a scratch cooking program at over 60 schools this year. We’re not 100 percent scratch, as this is our first year, but our breakfast burritos and the sunshine breakfast biscuits are made from scratch. We have a chile relleno quiche and a black bean casserole that’s vegetarian that are scratch. For the past few years we have salad bars in almost every school with fresh fruits and veggies in season.”
Lesh explained that DPS tries to support the local growing movement as well. “We buy from school gardens when we can. In the last year we used some 1,500 pounds of produce from 14 school gardens maintained by students with adult supervision. We’re using grass-fed beef that’s local in a lot of our schools, anti-biotic free, all natural. We’re looking for products that don’t have artificial flavorings, growth hormones or antibiotics. We want to keep as clean a label as we possibly can.” Lesh admits that it’s “not easy, though. I get no money from the general fund for this business. I go on what I sell, and the federal government does not give us a lot of money to make this go.”
For information about the Sustainable Food Policy Council, call 720-865-5465. To view the draft ordinance on food producing animals visit sustainablefooddenver.org. To learn about James Bertini’s proposed ballot initiative for this May’s voting, visit freethechickens.com.
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