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How Colorado’s rural and urban food communities are coming together

Schools, other public institutions are buying locally sourced food spurred by policy, values. But labor, distribution and other issues are unresolved.

Students from the Denver Green School help with the harvest of the adjacent Sprout City Farms garden. A portion of the food is used by the school cafeteria, while the rest is shared or sold within the community. (Handout, Meg Caley, Sprout City Farms)
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Every day, Greeley-Evans District 6 school cafeterias serve fruits and vegetables that look like real fruits and vegetables, because they are. Most of the meals are made from scratch. And the district, which serves about 14,000 meals a day, is working with about a dozen local farmers to add more fresh produce to the school lunch menu.

The farm-to-school program isn’t the cheapest option and it’s definitely not the most convenient, the district’s executive chef Matt Poling admits. Buying from farms means extra work to clean and cut produce to fit on school lunch trays while processed and prepackaged food can save time and money. 

But there’s more to a school lunch than buying for the lowest price, he said. He wants to make sure Weld County students get at least one high-quality, nutrition-rich meal a day. Plus there’s the education factor: He wants kids to know where their food comes from. 

“We don’t want the answer to the question ‘Do you know where does this apple come from?’ to be ‘The grocery store.’ We want the answer to be a farm or an orchard,” Poling said. “We do what we can because obviously 100% of our food budget is not going to be local. It’s just not feasible. But you’ve got to start somewhere.”

Students at Greeley-Evans District 6 help shuck fresh corn from a Colorado farm. It’s not typical for students to volunteer in the kitchens but when fresh produce arrive, some students do volunteer as part of a sports team or club, said executive chef Matt Poling. (Handout, Greeley-Evans District 6 Nutrition Services)

The movement to improve locally sourced options at schools and other public institutions started years ago. But as momentum increases, the challenges are becoming more pronounced. At a recent conference in Denver on institutional food purchasing, there was frustration about low-cost bids that don’t value nutrition, or the challenge in getting local produce delivered. And there was plenty of talk about labor shortages impacting nearly every part of the food industry.

But these were also issues that brought rural and urban farmers, advocates and consumers, food makers and buyers, and the Denver County Sheriff’s Department and researchers from Colorado State University together at the Colorado Food Summit earlier this month.

“I think there’s a learning curve for everybody,” said Becca Jablonski, food systems extension economist at CSU, an event sponsor, “because for a long time, we have relied on conventional supply chains that are increasingly consolidated and they have done an incredibly efficient job at providing affordable food to most Americans. Not all, but most. Part of the discussion, though, is that there are other values that many people want embedded in their food.” 

Jablonski pointed to a 2016 report by the state’s Department of Agriculture and CSU on how Coloradans view agriculture. Household values are changing, and that’s resulted in CSU making its own shift. The Fort Collins school is in the process of expanding to Denver to be part of the  revamped National Western Center. It plans to conduct agricultural research as well as provide education opportunities for its new neighbors.

“We see that households — including those that are low-income — make purchasing decisions for reasons beyond price. This is not to say that price isn’t important, but it is only one of the factors considered by the buying public,” she said. “These changes in what households are purchasing and where they are purchasing it represent a new opportunity for land grant universities.”

Becca Jablonski, an assistant professor and Food Systems Extension Economist at Colorado State University, speaks at the Colorado Food Summit in Denver on January 7, 2020. The event was about considering whether values like locally grown food should be considered when cities, schools and other institutions purchase food. (Melanie McLean Brooks, Flying Giant Productions, for the Colorado Food Summit)

In other words, she added, researchers may take 10 years to breed a new variety of potatoes. But instead of just focusing on results for the farm side, CSU and the industry need to consider attributes consumers would want in 10 years, be it organic, sustainably grown or from a local farm.

“Historically, much of what we were doing was to respond to what used to be more rural and agricultural stakeholder needs. It’s much broader now,” she said.

While the two may not mingle often, rural farmers and urban dwellers often seek the same values, said Marion Kalb, institutional food program administrator for Denver’s Department of Public Health & Environment. 

“Denver residents are looking for product that perhaps doesn’t have pesticides on it or it’s grown organically or is good for the environment. And we know that there are growers out there that grow that product,” Kalb said. “But we also know that sometimes the translation of that is somewhat judgmental of growers in rural areas. And given how many of them are indeed growing without pesticides and really cognizant of climate change and really working at trying to do things that are good for the soil, we thought that this kind of an event would bring people together to bring up those kinds of issues and get them talking to each other.”

It hasn’t been easy to return to a society where buying local, or within the state, is natural. It means recreating those distribution paths, communicating with farmers a couple hundred miles away and reversing the trends that have made modern life much more convenient for folks who don’t have time to cook, or institutions that must watch every penny rather than every ingredient. 

Marco Antonio Abarca, president of Ready Foods, speaks on a panel at the Colorado Food Summit in Denver on January 7, 2020. (Melanie McLean Brooks, Flying Giant Productions, for the Colorado Food Summit)

“Our current local food system does what’s easiest,” said Marco Antonio Abarca, president of Ready Foods, who attended the summit. It values low-cost bids, which he said often result in low-quality, nutrition-poor food. “The best thing and the right thing are not always the easiest thing.”  

Abarca, whose family business employs cooks that prepare soups and sauces from scratch for restaurants and supermarkets, called the summit “a very, very, very important event” because it reached out to people like him who were outside the agricultural industry.

“The conference was to reimagine the food system, reimagine the paradigm that we’re working under. Rethink a lot of our fundamental premises,” he said. “They were reaching outside the usual circle of people that they deal with. That was the critical thing because we are part of the local environment.”

Distribution, labor supply and other snags

While Idaho may dominate the mass-produced potato market, Colorado is the second-largest producer of fresh-market potatoes in the country, said Jim Ehrlich, with the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee in the San Luis Valley. That means the state’s potatoes aren’t used in frozen french fries or tater tots.

But fresh potatoes require additional preparation and cooking. Meanwhile, potato farmers aren’t set up to work with institutions needing smaller orders. That’s not built into the delivery system. At least not yet, said Ehrlich, who’d been hoping to find a grant to support a pilot program.

“We have more than enough potatoes for the Denver school districts and Denver public institutions. But it’s the distribution network and making it work because oftentimes they don’t need a whole truckload of potatoes, but that’s how we ship them,” Ehrlich said. “We’re selling them everywhere, but it would sure make a lot of sense if we could sell more into the Denver market.”

Brian Coppom, executive director of the Boulder County Farmers Markets, speaks about local farmers markets and other options for Colorado farmers to sell directly to consumers. Coppom joined a panelists from Durango Farmers Market and the Colorado Farmers Market Association at the Colorado Food Summit in Denver on Jan. 7, 2020. (Melanie McLean Brooks, Flying Giant Productions, for the Colorado Food Summit)

Buying local fits squarely in Denver’s FoodVision plan, which the city adopted  in 2017. It set goals to expand local food production, while also providing more healthy and affordable eating options to low-income households. One goal: By 2030, 25% of food purchased by public institutions should be from Colorado farms and producers. It’s currently 13%, though if you include milk, Denver’s at 23%, the city’s Kalb said. 

This year, the city is expected to take another step. The Denver Sustainable Food Policy Council has recommended to Mayor Michael Hancock that the city adopt standards set by the Center for Good Food Purchasing Program, a sort of social-good certification to help food buyers consider more than just price. It creates a guideline to help determine food quality based on five core values, such as local sources and environmental sustainability.

If adopted, the program would impact $3.5 milion spent on food by the Denver County Sheriff’s Department and the city’s summer and afterschool child-nutrition programs. City food buyers would prioritize Good Food values instead of approving contracts based only on the lowest bid.

Kalb, an ex officio member of the mayor’s food-policy council, said the at-risk community would have access to better food and in the program’s first year, $525,000 would be spent on Colorado food, growing to $875,000 spent in year five.  

“From our perspective, we as a city are interested in trying to increase linkages with rural growers and the reason that we’re trying to do that is to try and buy more Colorado products with city institutions, those that purchase directly as well as other Denver Metro institutions, like schools and hospitals and universities,” Kalb said. “The policy measure is meant to give it a little bit more weight so that it would provide a little bit more incentive to continue and then also expand on these efforts.”

But even though the Denver County Jail has purchased Colorado beef, chicken and produce, its locally sourced program hit a snag. Fewer inmates are helping out with the food program so the jail needs to hire more people. 

“One of the issues that comes up when you buy from farmers is that most of the time you’re getting product that’s not processed. Carrots are whole but not shredded. Potatoes are whole and not diced. It’s the same with onions. You need the labor in order to do that,” Kalb said. “So that’s one of the holdups right now at the Denver County Jail.”

Labor shortages are a major issue industry wide. Ready Foods’ Abarca said he realized how big of a problem it is for the food industry after hearing so many other people at the conference mention it. 

“Labor shortages are going to be one of the driving factors in the next 10 to 20 years, and I’m glad I’m not the only one talking about it or thinking about it,” he said. “It was nice to hear that other people are worried about this.”

Been there, still doing it

The U.S. Department of Agriculture revised the school lunch program to require healthier options in 2010, but Colorado Springs School District 11 had already committed to the Good Food Project around 2007.

That meant the school had to make many of its meals from scratch — including pizza crust and sauce, said Kent Wehri, director of District 11’s Food and Nutrition Services. 

“Back before the regulations came out, pizzas were loaded with high fructose corn syrup in their sauce,” he said. “The cheese that they used was basically made from whole milk and so it was really high fat. And pepperoni, the toppings were still high fat and, you know, high flavor, let’s be honest.”

A recent school lunch served at one of Colorado Springs District 11 schools included a BBQ pork sandwich made from frozen pork but with only two ingrediencts: pork and salt. There are no fillers or other ingredients “to make it palatable to kids,” said Jamie Humphrey, a registered dietician with the district. The BBQ sauce also has no high-fructose corn syrup and it’s served on a whole-wheat bun. There’s also a full salad bar and fat-free milk and water. Juice boxes happened to be served this day but Humphrey said that they try to limit juice to one lunch per week. (Handout, Colorado Springs District 11)

After the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act went into effect in 2012, the new federal regulations forced manufacturers to cut down on sodium, sugar and saturated fats plus add in whole grains and fruits and vegetables. But it took years before the district was satisfied that large vendors were making healthier food. 

“Now we have manufacturers that have three or four different lines of pizza sauce that are all basically healthy options. We have several different companies that have whole grain crust that we can buy directly from them instead of trying to make them,” Wehri said. 

Switching to larger, non-local food suppliers saved money and was done to offset the increase in the state’s minimum wage. Wehri said the nutrition department’s labor costs have gone up. It used to be about 45% of the budget. It’s now 50% with nearly 10% fewer employees than a few years ago.

“Our districts are very cognizant of products that we serve, but we also have to manage our labor and our food-costs budgets,” he said. “Is it the right thing to do to still spend hours making pizza crust when I can buy, basically, the same product at the same cost or even less from a mass-meal distributor?

“We’re a school district. We’re not McDonald’s. We can’t just raise prices willy nilly and be like OK, now everything’s going to cost $1 more. I’m trying to create a meal for a high school student when I’m only charging $3.05. We have to balance pretty much every decision we make on a food quality level but also on a cost level.”

Sprout City Farms teams up with institutional partners to open local farms on public spaces. It started with the Denver Green School in 2010 and grows enough food to provide three to five tons to the school cafeteria, plus the neighborhood. Pictured is the Mountair Park Community Farm, a 1.5-acre organic vegetable farm in partnership with the City of Lakewood, in June 2019. (Meg Caley, Sprout City Farms)

In Denver, Sprout City Farms celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. The nonprofit finds institutional partners and establishes farms on one-acre plots. Its first one started at the Green School in Denver and grows between three to five tons of food a year. A portion feeds the students. The program is funded partly by neighbors in the community who buy shares, plus grants and minimal profits from fresh food sales to the community. The nonprofit has since added farms on plots owned by the Mental Health Center of Denver and the city of Lakewood.

“We have a really good farm-to-school model, where we built the farm right in the middle of the school yard,” said Meg Caley, Sprout’s cofounder and executive director. “We supply the school kitchens and the students come out to classes all the time. And we run an after-school program. So they’re learning, they’re earning curriculum units at the farm, and they’re doing service learning, which is a nice way to say they’re getting put to work.”

It’s a good time for schools to consider buying local. Last year, the state legislature passed a bill to allow the Colorado department of education to reimburse schools and child care centers that buy locally produced food, limited to $500,000 a year for the whole state.

And while farm-to-school programs are more common among larger urban districts, Poling in Weld County said he’s happy to help smaller school districts get started.

“It’s new in a lot of districts, especially the smaller ones that are just hesitant to dip their toe in the water or don’t know where to start. That’s where we come in,” said Poling, who’s been participating in the farm-to-school program for six years. “We say, ’Look, we’ve already done the legwork. I have spreadsheets for you. I can show you how to build an RFP or put this out to bid, how to approach the farmer and what to say to the farmer to get him to even be interested in selling to a school because a lot of the farmers don’t know what to do, either.’ There’s still a lot of room to grow and a lot of work to do. But the movement is here.”

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