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New & Next: Developing Denver's Food System Infrastructure

Blake Angelo

Blake Angelo, the city's manager of Food System Development, is working to develop a vision for our food system that encompasses both the challenges of food security and opportunities for economic development.
For many of us, the word "infrastructure" evokes thoughts of bridges, or roads, or maybe even public water projects. For others, it may evoke memories of past political speeches and controversies. For others still, the word may be an immediate off switch because we know the subject cannot possibly be interesting.

Yet there is one thing we can pretty much all agree on: Infrastructure may be important, but it certainly does not mean food! I'm trying to change that.

I was hired by the City and County of Denver in June 2015 as Denver's first Manager of Food System Development. Housed within the Office of Economic Development, my responsibilities cover a wide scope from supporting the growth and development of food and farm businesses to finding new and creative ways to support healthy food access in Denver's low-income communities.

At its core, the creation of this new position is recognition that the residents of Denver care deeply about their food system and their ability to access fresh, healthy food in their own neighborhoods. But it also represents the recognition that cities, and we as residents, have an important and increasingly essential role in shaping our own food supply.

In recent years, local food has captured the public imagination and kindled the spark of private entrepreneurs and social visionaries, spurring amazing innovations in Colorado and around the world. This collective interest has resulted in a tremendous explosion and diversification of food and food-related businesses, organizations, associations, and initiatives -- I can count nearly 3,000 such organizations in Denver alone! Popular literature on farms and food systems has further contributed to this movement -- extolling the many virtues of local food and small family farms while denigrating the industries that underpin the vast majority of the American food system.

In parallel, obesity and other diet-related chronic diseases are increasingly seen as a critical epidemic in the U.S. Even though Colorado was recently highlighted as the least obese state in the nation, an estimated 54 percent of Colorado adults are overweight or obese. In Denver alone, the costs of direct medical treatments for obesity amount to over $284 million per year. The statistics are even more worrying when we look at our childhood obesity rates, where although the rate of increase has leveled off in recent years, we still suffer an irresponsibly high level of childhood obesity, over 33 percent.

Ironically, our community also suffers from hunger and food insecurity at alarming rates -- over one in five of our youth regularly experience food insecurity or hunger, missing critical meals and nutrition needed for successful learning.

These challenges are not felt equally across our community. Low-income and non-white residents are far more likely to be obese and suffer the wide range of costly consequences, adding and compounding the many other disparities and challenges they face.

I try to stay focused at this junction between the great economic opportunities of local food and the great challenges of hunger and obesity. In the coming months, the City and County of Denver will begin the development of a comprehensive, citywide fresh food strategy which will incorporate infrastructure needs for the growing, processing, distribution and retailing of fresh foods to address these challenges and capitalize on opportunities. This strategy will help outline food system infrastructure and will include community gardens, urban farms, farmers markets, restaurant incubators, community commercial kitchens, public markets, food hubs, mobile farm stands, community co-ops, food business financing and incentives and micro-food business accelerators.

Ambitious? Certainly. Overwhelming? Possibly. Our success is critically contingent on the level of engagement and vision defined by Denver's residents, businesses and organizations.

Our food system is undergoing a transformation led in great part by shifting consumer demand. Assemblages of diverse, growing and rapidly changing local and regional food enterprises ranging from farms and ranches to distributors to restaurants and retail businesses are rushing to meet these changing needs. But there is an important role for cities in this movement as well. Cities are uniquely situated to provide a strong and supportive foundation for businesses while constantly working to ensure equity across our neighborhoods and improving conditions for our most vulnerable.

I hope you'll stay tuned to this initiative as we gain momentum. It promises to be a momentous year for food (and for people who like to eat) in Denver!

National Food System Trends
  • Direct sales from farms to consumers and restaurants have increased 120 percent in last decade from $600 million to more than $1.2 billion.
  • Farmers markets have similarly increased in number 123 percent from 3,706 in 2004 to 8,258 in 2014.
  • Community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs have proliferated from two in 1986 to 1,144 in 2005 and possibly over 2,500 as of 2010.
  • Farm to school district programs have grown from six in 2001 to 4,322 in 2011 resulting in $385 million of healthy, farm-fresh purchases per year.
  • The National Restaurant Association reports local food is the top trend in restaurant purchasing.
  • The Center for Disease Control reports that increasing fruit and vegetable consumption is one of the best ways to combat obesity.
  • Food hubs have seen a recent burst in popularity, with 62 percent of surveyed food hubs being established in the past five years.
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