Filling the local plate
Group hopes to make connection between local food, mouths

SideStory: Weighing in on local foods: Growing Partners offer forum

Irrigation equipment lays dormant east of Durango early this week. A relatively new group, Growing Partners of Southwest Colorado, is currently working up an assessment of local foods. The group hopes to establish a vision for community agriculture and educate local consumers with the effort./Photo by Todd Newcomer

by Will Sands

Foods grown in the Durango area and the people who eat them are getting a big boost. An effort to analyze local food production and consumption is under way. The project’s goal is to improve local agriculture and make it accessible to all ages, incomes and cultures in La Plata County.

Growing Partners of Southwest Colorado is a relatively new, collaborative effort between the Southern Ute Community Action Program, La Boca Center for Sustainability, The Garden Project of Southwest Colorado, Turtle Lake Refuge, and Southwest Marketing Network.

Shari Fitzgerald, of the Garden Project, explained that the partnership hopes to answer the question, “How do you put control of your food back in your community?”

To this end, the Growing Partners were awarded grant funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the tune of $50,000. Over a period of 15 months, the group is conducting a community assessment of “food security.”

Greg Vlaming, cooperative extension agent and a local grower, defined “food security,” saying it occurs when “All members of the community have access to local, affordable, organic food and the farmers can afford to produce it.”

Fitzgerald concurred, saying, “It’s making sure all people have access to food that’s nutritious, safe and culturally appropriate, and that it’s produced in a way that’s sustainable.”

Beyond getting local food on local plates, the Growing Partners have several concrete goals, Fitzgerald said. Foremost, the group is emphasizing public education and getting the community to participate in the community’s food system.

“Consumer education is an important part of this,” she said. “We’re hoping for a lot of general education on local foods and their benefits. We’re also putting together a harvest calendar, so people will know what’s available from local producers during each part of the year.”

Another goal is strengthening local food production and the networks between various farmers and food outlets. “One of the suggestions we’ve already heard from farmers is that we need to come up with a better distribution system for local foods,” Fitzgerald said. “Farmers have a hard time marketing their product when their main goal is growing. One possible solution is creating a co-op to fill that void.”

Another goal of the Growing Partners is to learning how to better serve the community’s food needs. The current weather pattern has spotlighted the need to focus on food security, according to Fitzgerald. “It’s an interesting time to be talking about all of this,” she said. “It becomes especially important when you consider the ongoing drought.”

In addition, the assessment will consider the ability of La Plata County’s “underserved populations,” particularly youths and the poor, to access healthy food.

“We hope the final result will help us tailor our food and growing projects to the needs of the entire community,” Fitzgerald said.

Jim Dyer, of the Southwest Marketing Network, added that the effort will also establish a long-term vision for food grown in La Plata County.

“This is a way of coming up with a longer term and wider look at the whole food system in the region,” he said. “Hopefully, this will allow us to look well into the future and ask, ‘Where do we want to be in terms of agriculture and the shape of the landscape many years from now?’”

The community food assessment has been ongoing for five of its 15 months, and already it’s clear that becoming more sustainable will require a variety of approaches.

“I don’t think there’s going to be one particular project that will make La Plata County self-sustaining in terms of food,” Fitzgerald said. “It’ll take a variety of approaches ranging from the farmers’ market and backyard gardens to things like nutritional education, cooking classes and teaching people how to shop.”

However, the Growing Partners are up to the challenge, Fitzgerald said. With roots in five different organizations and ties to growers throughout the region, the group already has agricultural buy-in. The next step is bringing the mouths and stomachs of La Plata County on board, which begins this week in Ignacio (see sidebar).

“What makes our group unique is that we already represent so many local food projects,” Fitzgerald concluded. “We already represent a really diverse section of local food production. Now, we need to make sure we also reflect the community.”

And Dyer said that he believes the community is ready to step up to the plate. “People are getting interested in their foods and are looking for exciting new foods with a sense of place,” he said. “It’s a teachable moment right now and a good time to be putting all of this together.”