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Teens for Food Justice School-Based Hydroponic Farm Program: Denver

By 2050 all Denverites can access healthy, affordable food and there is no dangerous cycle of health outcomes created by food insecurity.

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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Teens for Food Justice

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Youth Organisation (between 18 - 30 years old)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Denver Public Schools

Website of Legally Registered Entity

www.teensforfoodjustice.org

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

New York City

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Denver, Colorado

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Teens for Food Justice (TFFJ) chose to bring our program to Denver through a combination of need and alignment. 

TFFJ’s mission is to galvanize a youth-led food justice movement working to ensure that all residents of our partner communities have access to fresh, healthy food and to end the cycle of modifiable health outcomes disproportionately impacting low-income communities of color. TFFJ works within Title 1 middle and high schools in food insecure communities, training students to build/maintain indoor hydroponic farms growing more than 10,000 pounds of produce annually that is served in cafeterias and distributed to community residents. Further, students learn the nutrition and health skills needed to lead themselves and others towards healthier futures. 

TFFJ’s board chair, who grew up in Denver, alerted us to its struggles with food insecurity and modifiable health outcomes despite its reputation as a center of urban health. From her we learned that despite being named Best Place to Live in America as recently as 2016, nearly 1 in 6 Denver households (and 1 in 5 children) currently experience food insecurity or hunger, and about 3 in 10 children are considered overweight or obese. TFFJ was formed to fight these exact systemic inequalities. 

However, we also see the political will to make Denver's food system more equitable already evidenced by projects such as the Denver Food Vision 2030 and Denver Food Action Plan. Additionally, in 2016 the city voted (with 59% approval) to pass an excise tax on sugary drinks intended to raise revenue for healthy food access and education programs for students. This engagement is also strong in the many schools and school-based partners establishing initiatives aimed at connecting youth to agriculture and nutrition.

In short, Denver represents an opportunity for TFFJ to expand our program within a community where the need for it is substantial, but so is the support that will enable it to flourish. 

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Like many American cities, Denver is at once a thriving community and one whose residents bear the contradictory costs of its rapid growth.

Denver is situated on 155 square miles just east of the Rocky Mountains. With a population of 716,500 and counting, Denver is the most populous city in Colorado and the 19th most populous city in the U.S. Per the 2010 census, Denver’s population is 69% White; 32% Hispanic or Latino; 10% Black or African-American; 3% Asian; and 1% Native American. Approximately 16% of Denver’s population is foreign-born, largely from Latin America (64%), and most city residents (94%) speak either English or Spanish. 

Denver’s “Mile-High City” nickname refers to its one-mile elevation above sea level, a source of great local pride and a contributor to its dry climate. The city’s 300 days of sunlight each year provide natural encouragement for outdoor activity within its 5,000 acres of parks and 85 miles of bike trails. 

Typical Denver foods show traces of its migration patterns and its industrial history. Some historians think the famous Denver Omelet originated as a variation of egg foo young served by Chinese cooks in the city’s railroad camps. Denver’s tradition of craft brewing, started to serve miners during the Gold Rush, continues in its 90 small breweries. The city’s Mexican-American population appears in such thriving food staples as green chiles, burritos, and street tacos. Various locally made favorites are items once produced in bakeries and factories within the city’s Westside neighborhood — cookies, breads, ice creams, pickles, and potato chips.

Unfortunately, the structural amenities described above are not equally enjoyed by all Denverites; our partners at Denver Public Schools speak of the “wide chasm in lived realities” between residents whose incomes are middle-class or above and those whose are below. This is largely due to gentrification north of the city’s downtown, which until recently had primarily hosted lower-income Hispanic and Latino residents as well as descendants of Irish, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants. 

National consumer mortgage resource HSH.com states that the current annual income needed to afford a loan on a median-priced home in Denver is $86,225, which is more than twice the median income of the northern Elyria-Swansea neighborhood (about $37,000) the Bruce Randolph School serves. The same Hispanic population whose culinary influence has fueled Denver’s restaurant growth is also being displaced from its gentrifying neighborhoods at rates higher than anywhere else in the country, on average. The city’s northern Globeville neighborhood is only 3 miles from downtown, but can only access it via 2 through roads — the rest are blocked by two interstate highways. Both Globeville and Elyria-Swansea experience asthma rates that are 1.4 times higher than the rest of Denver, likely correlated to pollution from the slaughterhouse and pet-food factory that are also contaminating their soil. 


What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

401

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

716500

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Although Denver has recently improved its overall public health outcomes, wide and troubling disparities related to systemic conditions exist across the health of its residents. According to the city’s 2017 Food Vision paper, nearly 1 in 6 households (and 1 in 5 children) experience food insecurity or hunger; nearly 70% of Denver Public Schools students qualify for free or reduced-cost meals; 1 in 4 children consume more than one sugary drink daily; and 33.2% of families eat less than 1 serving of fruits and vegetables daily. Further, an estimated 57% of adults and nearly 30% of children ages 2-17 are either overweight or obese, with this prevalence highest in city’s the Non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic populations.

Denver’s 2016 Food System Baseline Report lists various challenges within the city’s food system that contribute to these outcomes. Food production challenges include long-term access to land, dependency on weather, and lack of consumer education about the realities of food production. Food distribution challenges include the cost of infrastructure and unpredictable gas/oil prices, lack of infrastructure connecting local suppliers and retailers, and seasonal variation in product availability. Food retail challenges include the economic viability of small grocery retailers, lack of connection to reliable local suppliers and cost-effective distributors, and lack of access to an adequately trained workforce.

Both the challenges and outcomes detailed above manifest within the communities served by our three targeted Denver partner schools, most clearly that of the Bruce Randolph School (grades 6-12), located in the northeast area of Elyria­-Swansea. Elyria-Swansea’s economic and physical health began declining in the mid-1960s when highway construction cut through the two neighborhoods’ economic hub, effectively halting the growth of its small businesses. Thanks in part to its industrial history and continued zoning, Elyria-Swansea still provides ample industrial-sector jobs and tax revenue; however, the area also suffers economic imbalances that contribute to worrisome health outcomes, many of which are impacted by modifiable factors. 

More than 1/3 of Elyria­-Swansea’s residents live below the poverty line; average household income is significantly lower than Denver’s self­-sufficiency standard — the USDA’s threshold for meeting minimal nutritional standards. One survey found that 34% of area residents face food insecurity, more than double the rate in greater Denver. At 20-24%, the area’s childhood obesity rate is also more than double the rate in some areas of Denver, and the neighborhood has seen increased rates of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

These outcomes may grow alarmingly worse if several of Denver’s current food system trends persist, notably its lower numbers of grocery stores in many lower-income neighborhoods, its loss of small, local food distribution businesses, and the decreasing number of area farms. 

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

TFFJ is partnering with Denver Public Schools to deliver a comprehensive, integrated approach to teaching students about urban agriculture, nutrition and healthy habits, and food justice advocacy. By utilizing the power of schools as natural centers of community and of students as change-makers within their own circles of friends, family, and neighbors, TFFJ’s program will help root generational change within Denver’s youngest stakeholders. TFFJ’s first three partner schools are the Bruce Randolph School (grades 6-12, ~800 students), Career Education Center Early College (grades 9-12, ~500 students), and Vista Academy (grades 6-12, ~480 students). 

We believe that TFFJ’s school-based hydroponic farming program will help address the challenges outlined above in two ways. 

First, it provides an easily accessible way to reconnect Denver students to food production. Agriculture plays a major part in Colorado’s general economy, netting $900 million for the state in 2017, but within Denver itself the food production sector (farms and ranches) is shrinking. There are only 14 farms in Denver today compared to 24 in 2007, and they provide only 406 jobs. (By contrast, there are 149 food processing businesses providing 6,062 jobs.) Further, Denver’s soil pollution has truncated its traditional soil-based farming and contributed to a skills and knowledge gap within its agricultural sector. Introducing students to urban agriculture via hydroponics — and infusing their cafeterias and communities with fresh, healthy food they grew themselves — can help acquaint them with farming while also investing them in the nutritional conditions within their communities. As stated by one school leader, “We want our students to be the ones in their community who can continue to have a voice.”

Second, it will help create a career pathway for urban agriculture work that is both economically advantageous and socially beneficial for students and their surrounding communities. Denver has 100 gardens within its schools but no systematic way to connect students to agriculture industry opportunities. However, stakeholders are moving to change that; for example, the Bruce Randolph School has already established a partnership with Colorado State University’s extension campus half a mile away to engage in its Center for Food & Agriculture offerings. The Denver Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services team is working to establish a 1-acre greenhouse dedicated to growing produce for school use, hopefully exposing students to various forms of agriculture (including hydroponic) while the team also finds conduits for industry internships and a later district-wide expansion.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Our high-level vision is that by 2050, a TFFJ farm and accompanying STEM, nutrition/health, and food justice/food access program will serve every student attending one of Denver’s 82 Title I middle or high schools and living in a food-insecure area of Denver. 

If a TFFJ farm were established at each of these schools, together they would produce more than 820,000 pounds of fresh, healthy produce per year that is distributed through various means to their surrounding communities. Further, thousands of students will learn how to build and maintain an indoor hydroponic farm that serves as a local source for fresh food and a center for nutrition and health education for their school and community. 

All of these students will have the opportunity to see themselves as young urban farmers who have built a meaningful, working solution to food insecurity where none existed before. All of these students will be on their way to transforming their relationship with the food they eat while learning about the science and technology that goes into building and maintaining a hydroponic farm, an experience that provides them with key skills and knowledge needed in a new green sector economy. All of these students will have the will and skills to advocate for food justice within their communities and lead themselves and others towards healthier futures. 

Our hope is that by 2050 we will have seeded several understandings — of the right every Denverite has to access healthy food, of the impacts unhealthy food has on the body, of the causes behind systemic food inequality — into thousands of future farmers and families, voters and policy-makers, all of whom are equipped to fight for change within their communities. 

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Although Denver has recently improved its overall public health outcomes, wide and troubling disparities related to systemic conditions exist across the health of its residents. According to the city’s 2017 Food Vision paper, nearly 1 in 6 households (and 1 in 5 children) experience food insecurity or hunger; nearly 70% of Denver Public Schools students qualify for free or reduced cost meals; 1 in 4 children consume more than one sugary drink daily; and 33.2% of families eat less than 1 serving of fruits and vegetables daily. Further, an estimated 57% of adults and nearly 30% of children ages 2-17 are either overweight or obese, with this prevalence highest in city’s the Non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic populations.

Denver’s 2016 Food System Baseline Report lists various challenges within the city’s food system that contribute to these outcomes. Food production challenges include long-term access to land, dependency on weather, and lack of consumer education about the realities of food production. Food distribution challenges include cost of infrastructure and unpredictable gas/oil prices, lack of infrastructure connecting local suppliers and retailers, and seasonal variation in product availability. Food retail challenges include economic viability of small grocery retailers, lack of connection to reliable local suppliers and cost-effective distributors, and lack of access to an adequately trained workforce.

Both the challenges and outcomes detailed above manifest within the communities served by our three targeted Denver partner school, most clearly that of the Bruce Randolph School (grades 6-12), located in the northeast area of Elyria­-Swansea. Elyria-Swansea’s economic and physical health began declining in the mid-1960s when highway construction cut through the two neighborhoods’ economic hub, effectively halting the growth of its small businesses. Thanks in part to its industrial history and continued zoning, Elyria-Swansea still provides ample industrial-sector jobs and tax revenue; however, the area also suffers economic imbalances that contribute to worrisome health outcomes, many of which are impacted by modifiable factors. 

More than 1/3 of Elyria­-Swansea’s residents live below the poverty line; average household income is significantly lower than Denver’s self­-sufficiency standard — the USDA’s threshold for meeting minimal nutritional standards. One survey found that 34% of area residents face food insecurity, more than double the rate in greater Denver. At 20-24%, the area’s childhood obesity rate is also more than double the rate in some areas of Denver, and the neighborhood has seen increased rates of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

These outcomes may grow alarmingly worse if several of Denver’s current food system trends persist, notably its lower numbers of grocery stores in many lower-income neighborhoods, its loss of small, local food distribution businesses, and the decreasing number of area farms. 

TFFJ is partnering with Denver Public Schools to deliver a comprehensive, integrated approach to teaching students about urban agriculture, nutrition and healthy habits, and food justice advocacy. By utilizing the power of schools as natural centers of community and of students as change-makers within their own circles of friends, family, and neighbors, TFFJ’s program will help root generational change within Denver’s youngest stakeholders. TFFJ’s first three partner schools are the Bruce Randolph School (grades 6-12, ~800 students), Career Education Center Early College (grades 9-12, ~500 students), and Vista Academy (grades 6-12, ~480 students). 

We believe that TFFJ’s school-based hydroponic farming program will help address the challenges outlined above in two ways. 

First, it provides an easily accessible way to reconnect Denver students to food production. Agriculture plays a major part in Colorado’s general economy, netting $900 million for the state in 2017, but within Denver itself the food production sector (farms and ranches) is shrinking. There are only 14 farms in Denver today compared to 24 in 2007, and they provide only 406 jobs. (By contrast, there are 149 food processing businesses providing 6,062 jobs.) Further, Denver’s soil pollution has truncated its traditional soil-based farming and contributed to a skills and knowledge gap within its agricultural sector. Introducing students to urban agriculture via hydroponics — and infusing their cafeterias and communities with fresh, healthy food they grew themselves — can help acquaint them with farming while also investing them in the nutritional conditions within their communities. As stated by one school leader, “We want our students to be the ones in their community who can continue to have a voice.”

Second, it will help create a career pathway for urban agriculture work that is both economically advantageous and socially beneficial for students and their surrounding communities. Denver has 100 gardens within its schools but no systematic way to connect students to agriculture industry opportunities. However, stakeholders are moving to change that; for example, the Bruce Randolph School has already established a partnership with Colorado State University’s extension campus half a mile away to engage in its Center for Food & Agriculture offerings. The Denver Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services team is working to establish a 1-acre greenhouse dedicated to growing produce for school use, hopefully exposing students to various forms of agriculture (including hydroponic) while the team also finds conduits for industry internships and a later district-wide expansion. 

Our high-level vision is that by 2050, a TFFJ farm and accompanying STEM, nutrition/health, and food justice/food access program will serve every student attending one of Denver’s 82 Title I middle or high schools and living in a food-insecure area of Denver. 

If a TFFJ farm were established at each of these schools, together they would produce more than 820,000 pounds of fresh, healthy produce per year that is distributed through various means to their surrounding communities. Further, thousands of students will learn how to build and maintain an indoor hydroponic farm that serves as a local source for fresh food and a center for nutrition and health education for their school and community. 

All of these students will have the opportunity to see themselves as young urban farmers who have built a meaningful, working solution to food insecurity where none existed before. All of these students will be on their way to transforming their relationship with the food they eat while learning about the science and technology that goes into building and maintaining a hydroponic farm, an experience that provides them with key skills and knowledge needed in a new green sector economy. All of these students will have the will and skills to advocate for food justice within their communities and lead themselves and others towards healthier futures. 

Our hope is that by 2050 we will have seeded several understandings — of the right every Denverite has to access healthy food, of the impacts unhealthy food has on the body, of the causes behind systemic food inequality — into thousands of future farmers and families, voters and policy-makers, all of whom are equipped to fight for change within their communities. 

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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I want to know more about your work. Can we connect via email please? Thanks, Dr. Kelly. I have been working on similar ideas in Pueblo, CO. Kellyphgs@gmail.com

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