This past spring I took some time away from the rigors of the NOSB meeting in Denver to visit one of the UNFI Foundation’s grant recipients. For over 32 years Denver Urban Gardens (DUG) has facilitated community access to unique growing spaces in neighborhoods throughout the area. The gardens empower people to have increased food security and better nutrition, improving economic security. Their hyper-local approach is creating shimmering urban vitality with organically grown food.
The Executive Director, Michael Buchenau, picked me up in downtown Denver and spoke with an impassioned voice as we drove through the inner city. A certain flourish of prosperity was evident, fueled by a recent green revolution of the newly legal kind. We sped by multitudes of overarching cranes and bustling building sites, then on through older refurbished neighborhoods. I asked Michael about the history of DUG, its purpose and vision. When he first arrived 25 years ago, there was only a smattering of 12 unconnected gardens located on a few private properties. Now Denver Urban Gardens nurtures and mentors over 165 community gardens metro-wide.
It turns out, DUG acts as the catalyst between property owners, school districts, open space, housing authorities, and the communities who are motivated to take ownership of a garden. They work with the community to fundraise, manage the design, and then build the facility, developing a program that empowers the community to ultimately do the work themselves.
DUG always seeks a location with easy access to a school and the community. A place nestled in the everyday landscape where folks feel compelled to participate and linger, cultivate and harvest, to spend time outside with their children. The entire neighborhood stewards the garden, not just a teacher or school—the garden becomes part of the community landscape fostering nutrition and building relationships.
They enlist hundreds of skilled volunteers who offer trainings on leadership, horticulture, organic pest control, season extension, composting, food preservation and food donation. The garden takes on a life of its own, with a flurry of sharing and composting, pickling and jamming—once the taste of real food is experienced, the community never goes back. As the garden matures, DUG remains in a support role with a focus on creating another new garden in a neighborhood requesting their support. On average they help 10 new communities per year establish their own organic community garden.
Suddenly we are speeding through a landscape of vast golden fields rimmed with dilapidated fences and indolent farm implements. We drive through a diverse community of farmers, old school agriculturists barely hanging on, Ag and service workers who can’t afford the high rent in downtown Denver and a smattering of suburban track homes. The prairie dog seems to be the only prolific critter for miles around. The black-footed ferret is long gone, and the coyotes aren’t wily enough to be a hindrance.
Our destination is Vista Peak Preparatory High School, a very diverse school in far eastern Aurora. As we careen by the UNFI Aurora facility, I see in the distance, like a mirage, a conglomerate of brown cookie-cutter homes huddled together in the middle of nowhere. Over the rise is a trailer park—a hidden population of immigrants and refugees well away from the new development. There are no markets or food stores for miles around.
This then is what a food desert looks like, and here we find DUG’s eastern most garden.
There is much need in this community, and the garden will be a godsend for the people here. Many will use it for pure sustenance. They will also enjoy educational opportunities on nutrition, organic farming, or entrepreneurial farm-stand projects that teach business skills. Some perhaps who have had little positive feedback in their lives will go out and nurture the soil, the seeds, and their neighborhood. Here they will get immediate positive results.
They aren’t only building a little garden; they are building collective willpower, every garden bed will serve to empower the community through engagement. Every new season will be a renewal of the spirit.
Before we get out for a little hard labor purging weeds with a pick ax and hoe, Michael tells me that community gardens have a ripple effect on the communities. The University of Colorado Health Science Center has done research that shows community gardens have a huge ability to change people’s relationship to food habits, health and the community. This comes because of the social structure that is developed through peer learning and support. The garden becomes the place where bonding happens outside of the trailer park or housing project where people become stewards of place.
For the next several hours I work with members of the UNFI Helping Hands Team to break the sod and turn the earth, filling each new bed with black compost and soil. As a blister forms and the hot sun reddens, I am deeply grateful for the UNFI Foundation and the opportunity to be part of such an all-encompassing mission that DUG represents.
Perhaps organic gardening can heal the world, one bed at a time.
© 2017, Melody Meyer. All rights reserved.