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Equitable Resilience in Urban Farming

Urban farming with high-tech methods to increase food access in immigrant, refugee, and low-income communities and to activate youth farmers

Photo of Kasey Neiss
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Lead Applicant Organization Name

Village Exchange Center

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

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

Stanley Marketplace (for profit, mixed use shopping and activity development) Comida (restaurant) Create Cooking (restaurant) Stanley Beek Hall (bar and restaurant) Mondo Market (grocery and restaurant) Annette (restaurant) Masaki (restaurant) Alfalfa's Market (for profit, local grocery) Denver Botanic Gardens (not for profit, public botanical garden) University of Denver (private higher education university) Colorado State University (public higher education university) Colorado Ethiopian Community (not for profit organization) South Sudanese Community Association of Colorado (not for profit organization) Global Bhutanese Community of Colorado (not for profit organization) Peruvian Consulate of Colorado (government entity) Guatemalan Consulate of Colorado (government entity)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

https://www.villageexchangecenter.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?

Aurora, Colorado

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?

The metropolitan area of Denver, Colorado, which covers a total area 2,670 km^2, focusing on Northwest Aurora & Northeast Denver, 46.6 km^2.

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Village Exchange Center (VEC) emerged from the growing diversity in the City of Aurora, Colorado, and unmet community needs. Aurora currently receives 80% of the refugees resettled in Colorado and consists of a population of over 20% foreign born in a city of 361,000. VEC's building was originally owned by a Lutheran Church, whose shrinking congregation had been sharing the sanctuary with refugee and immigrant congregations for almost a decade prior. In 2016, they found themselves with an aging building and persistent disconnection from their neighborhood. In 2017, they donated the building to VEC and the community embarked on a journey of reimagining how their increasingly empty building could continue to serve the changing religious, ethnic, and cultural demographics. Two years later VEC has become an anchor in Aurora, a multicultural urban area, by embedding desired services including adult education, youth leadership, food access, vocational training, workforce development and childcare. The VEC team has engaged in intentional community listening and research projects to identify the local pain points and barriers. Just Northwest of our Aurora location is Denver’s Stapleton neighborhood, a community that is 82% white and economically affluent. This farm project is one mile from VEC, on the border of Northwest Aurora and Stapleton because we see an opportunity to engage globalizing communities across cultural and city lines through food, employment, training, and community building. We aim to provide services to the low-income communities while leveraging the buying and economic support power of the adjacent Stapleton community. With over 9,000 foreign-born residents within one mile of our farm and over 18,000 within two, we have prime real estate to enable a healthy, multicultural city. Our urban community is a leader in confronting the changes of diversifying cities, and VEC is among the organizations affecting these daily efforts and long term visions.

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.

While historically inhabited by White lower/middle class American families, Aurora has seen a marked increase in the numbers of immigrant and refugee families and families of color over the last two decades. The city now hosts a steadily growing population of foreign-born residents from over 45 different countries, 43% of whom are from Mexico. As of 2015, 54% of the population identified as non-White and 23.5% of children lived below the poverty line. Furthermore, economic disparities are pervasive among the foreign-born communities and in other marginalized local populations. We have a need for urban infrastructure and social services to respond to these changes. The City of Aurora and various local NGOs have implemented programs focused on cultural celebration and empowerment, as well as adult education focused on vocational skills, English language acquisition, financial literacy, citizenship test help, and more. Yet, the development of urban infrastructure is lagging, especially regarding urban food systems. The rapid increase of population and emergence of ethnic enclaves in the city has created food deserts and social silos, predominantly in low-income neighborhoods. This causes health disparities and limited access to familiar, cultural foods that disproportionately affect marginalized communities. A volunteer for the South Sudanese Community Association of Colorado, shared with us, “It’s very important for our communities to know their choices when it comes to maintaining a healthy plant based diet. Having a community garden can help attack health issues such as diabetes, or childhood obesity. There are plants such as okra that lower high blood pressure, and if our people have access to them they will be a lot healthier.” We also recognize that Colorado is a historic hub of food production. Our land has historically provided myriad cultures with food, from high plains farming practices of the Ute, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe indigenous nations, to bovine ranches dating back to the 1860s, to the irrigated farmlands that fed the railroad workers in the 1920s. These groups, and now others, still use this land for sustenance and look forward to leading the way in water conserving food systems. Colorado continues to lead the charge with urban agricultural practices in the emerging cannabis and hemp industry and other hydroponic growing facilities. Our immigrant and refugee community partners continuously express excitement and interest in engaging with innovative urban farming, from technologically advanced hydroponic systems to regenerative approaches. We see ourselves as part of a larger urban food system movement that will increase production of cultural foods while also providing training to increase economic mobility, activate community-wide interest in food production, and promote nutritional knowledge. 

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

2670

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

2888227

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

The changes to our environment and our increasing global population is presenting us with daunting challenges to food production, especially for urban populations. More extreme weather patterns and drier climates will affect the ability of local producers to continue to farm using conventional agricultural methods. Our region is a semi-arid environment where water is an increasingly scarce and fragile resource. Without innovative farming methods focused on water conservation, dependence on outsourced food will increase. Importing food, especially over long distances, is wasteful, inefficient and expensive. This method causes high carbon emissions from transportation and production, damages soil health and pollinator populations, and decreases the nutritional value as products are stored for weeks after harvest. We face a food system crisis that will only get more extreme as our climate continues to change, which the UN warns will be “critical ‘push’ factor driving international migration.” Moreover, with an increased urban growth there is less land available for farming, and teaching different ways of producing food in a much smaller footprint that yields same harvest will become increasingly more critical. Across the USA we are identifying food deserts, some of which are in Northwest Aurora and the larger Denver metro area. In addition to poor food access, our large foreign-born community also lacks access to culturally relevant and familiar food. These changes experienced in the process of migration and resettlement disrupt cultural diets and traditional knowledge on what to feed families. Most organic and healthy food in the city is too expensive for this community to afford; a substantial economic barrier. Additionally, navigating grocery stores necessitates knowledge of pricing standards (eg. by weight vs. by item) and food options that is often absent amongst immigrant families. In addition to learning a new language and these cultural norms, we find that many individuals in our community are forced to switch careers, and develop new entrepreneurial and vocational skill sets. Education and training opportunities are limited and have historically funneled immigrants into industries such as meatpacking or transportation services, many of which subject employees to bodily harm and offer little opportunity for promotions or otherwise economic stability. Immigrants and refugees face barriers in entering new fields with innovative technology, such as hydroponics or vertical farming. This industry, expected to be worth $13 billion by 2024, lacks diversity amongst growers, plant scientists, and leadership in US markets, the majority of whom are highly educated White Americans. Without the privilege of specialized training and education, immigrants and refugees cannot become employed in this high tech and cutting edge field.

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

Our urban farms utilize both vertical and regenerative farming methods to tackle our challenges from multiple angles. Setting up a campus of innovative urban farming techniques will not only provide desirable food options and employment opportunities for our local community, but also help to create carbon sinks in the city, encourage healthy ecosystems in opportunity zones (eg. floodways), and explore sustainable water use practices in urban food production. Regenerative farming has the benefit of improving watersheds and water cycles. This outdoor farm will provide much needed benefits to our urban and regional ecosystems, while also creating a platform to elevate the voices of immigrant and refugee community members who have extensive agrarian backgrounds. We recognize that many refugees carry vital knowledge of practices and methods that are sustainable in their own cultures, thus we predict there will be valuable exchange of cross-cultural farming knowledge in daily operations. Our vision will also increase the number of immigrants and refugees working in the AgTech industry and create more equity in this growing sector of food production. Training and educational opportunities in these methods can open doorways that would otherwise remain closed, for both immigrants and the industry. Vertical farming and hydroponics is often lauded to be the future of farming as we face changing climates and increasing population. This method offers rapid harvests, reduced water usage, climate controlled growing areas, and more locally embedded food systems. We hope to make this emerging, state-of-the-art technology accessible to our community not only because of the financial empowerment it can offer, but also because it is sustainable and easily implemented in dense and developed urban areas. Individual modular vertical farming units are yet another way of empowering this community. The vertical farm boxes we plan to use will be governed and operated by immigrant and refugee community members, providing both a platform to grow culturally desired foods and also engage in selling cash crops to their neighbors and other businesses. Similarly, with the regenerative farm, the combination of cash crops and cultural foods will affect community mental and physical health as well as their economic stability. Visibility and an abundance of familiar cultural foods can increase a sense of belonging, positive health outcomes, and overall emotional well-being, in the midst of uncertainty, and radical life changes. Through both our educational and community programs we aim to foster a community dedicated to healthy and local food systems, as well as the health and wellbeing of our neighbors and the environment. The end goal is to build a replicable model for sustainable urban agriculture that integrates our globalizing urban communities through holistic and complete approaches to soil and hydroponic food production.

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.

With a greater sense of belonging, relationships established across cultural, racial, and socio-economic differences, and more access to healthy and culturally appropriate foods, Northwest Aurora and Stapleton will enjoy a higher quality of life and have a vested interest in the wellbeing and resilience of their city. Job training will lead to greater diversity in the growing hydroponic and ag-tech field, in turn driving the sector towards employment equity, cultural literacy, and agricultural innovation. This locally and organically produced food will generate positive health outcomes, in individuals and the community at large, so that basic nutritional needs are attainable for everyone regardless of their background. By using food as a vehicle to overcome our differences, we can organize as a community to enact the changes we feel are necessary for a socially just and environmentally sustainable city. As cities change and grow, boundaries and silos appear. Our approach of urban agricultural acupuncture shatter the damaging silos that spring up around low-income communities. This intentional urban planning can create sustainable local food systems, activate unused real estate, and break barriers between communities. We believe that our vision has the capacity to use increasingly diverse populations as an asset in improving our local economy, environment, and food practices. To us, this means that families are more than able to care for their own, because they also know, feed, and work alongside their neighbors. As we raise more generations on our farm’s community programming, youth will not only have an appreciation for where their food came from, but also a growing interest in their environment and how technology can play a role in their future. Making this vision a reality in our home community will not be the end of our impact. Rather, we see this as a model that can be replicated and adjusted to other cities and their specific contexts.

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

Our vision is one based in the urban world, geared toward changing how urban residents engage with and understand food systems. Urban centers across the world are growing rapidly, from both in-country and out-country migration patterns. We aim to capitalize on this pattern of human movement and settlement to enact a kind of urban acupuncture within cities which will simultaneously activate neglected spaces for use in a food system and empower marginalized residents to take control of their health, nutrition and socioeconomic status. By identifying opportune spaces in cities that mesh communities and economies, we aim to develop a self-sustaining social enterprise that can support community for years to come. In our supra-local context, we have identified Stanley Marketplace to host our proof of concept. The property was transformed from an abandoned manufacturing facility into an multi-use, urban marketplace. Locating our project here will demonstrate how brownfield sites can be reactivated as food production zones. It also creates an economic bridge between the existing client base of the marketplace and low-income residents entering the world of food production, distribution and sales. Programming for this project will provide vocational training for both farm employees and entrepreneurs seeking to run their own operation, while also engaging youth in agricultural systems and activating their sense of wonder and connection to food and place. 

Indoor, self contained hydroponic systems will provide underserved communities access to and knowledge of high-tech farming technologies while also solving for our challenge of reduced acreage of farmable land and need for water conservation. Outdoor, regenerative farming connects people to place, enabling us to understand how areas as small as a half acre can produce a wealth of food while also healing water cycles, ecosystems, and sequester carbon in our growing urban centers. Working with collaborative cross-sector partners, nonprofits such as ourselves can replicate this process in other parts of Denver and across the nation. Our focus on the backyards, vacant lots, floodways, and other zones of opportunity we will demonstrate how systems level change can have an immediate impact when approached from the ground up and supported by cross sector organizations. 

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Website
  • web search

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Thank you very much

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