Denver Neighborhood Builds its Own Food Future

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Like a busy little bee, the little red-haired girl flits through the garden from plant to plant.  Rather than extracting nectar from each blossom and spreading pollen from plant to plant, she’s popping ripe cherry tomatoes and succulent strawberries into her mouth and calling to her friends to try some too. Four-year-old Khaleesi is accomplishing exactly what the Montbello Urban Farm set out to do in this neighborhood where access to fresh, healthy food is limited.  She is learning where her food comes from by growing and harvesting it; eating fresh, healthy vegetables; and sharing with her friends and family.

Her dad, Austin Chitwood, is the manager of The Urban Farm at Montbello. Chitwood tends the 10,000-square-foot garden, teaches residents about growing food, supervises volunteers and wages war with the never-ending onslaught of weeds.

“The best part of the Farm is watching things grow and mature and seeing the kids as they make their own discoveries about the seeds they plant. As a teacher, it is rewarding to see the excitement that comes from learning the rules of physics simply by digging a trench to see where the water flows,” Chitwood said.

The Urban Farm at Montbello is in its third year and is managed by Children’s Farms of America, which helps neighborhoods establish their own unique farm where their children learn about and then grow food for themselves and for their community.

One of the organization’s goals is to work in communities where children and their families have limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables due to lack of close proximity to a full-service grocery store and limited family income. In this Denver neighborhood of 35,000 residents, one in four adults one in two children live farther than one mile from a store with healthy, nutritious food. That translates to many families relying on a corner convenience store or a strip of fast food restaurants to meet their nutritional needs.  
Another goal of the effort is to address the health disparities that affect many residents in the community. According to the 2014 Health of Denver Report, 22 percent of public school children in Montbello neighborhoods are obese, 6 percent higher than Denver overall. Obesity in childhood is a predictor for obesity in adulthood, and obesity in adulthood is a predictor for prediabetes and diabetes. These unhealthy conditions are completely controllable through good nutrition, food security, and physical activity.

The Montbello Urban Farm provides opportunities for youth and adult groups and individuals to volunteer throughout the growing season. Chitwood noted that volunteer opportunities range from intense physical labor of moving soil and rocks to pulling weeds and cultivating around tender seedlings. For those whose knees don’t hold up to long periods of kneeling, chairs can be pulled up to free-standing grow boxes for weeding and pruning herbs. In 2016, 289 volunteers contributed 2,323 hours of sweat equity.  

The Montbello Urban Farm grows food for the community and distributes it biweekly through a collaboration with Food Bank of the Rockies. Several thousand pounds of fresh vegetables are distributed throughout the growing season. The program hosts an intergenerational farm camp each July.  Children and grandparents attend the camp together, sharing garden chores and learning about healthy eating.  Once a week the kids and their grandparents cook a meal from garden-harvested food. The children take home the same ingredients so they can prepare the recipes for the rest of the family.

The final goal of the effort is to promote the spread of these small urban farms throughout the Montbello community in partnership with several neighborhood schools and churches. The Urban Farm at Montbello exists through the generous dedication of land adjacent to the United Church of Montbello. At a recent meeting of the church’s leadership council, discussions revolved around expanding the farm.  With luck and perseverance, a year-round greenhouse and food co-op could be in the community’s future.