The Food Project Farm is turning a Longmont food desert into an oasis—and a community resource
By Lisa Truesdale
Miguel doesn’t have space for a garden at the Longmont home he shares with his single-parent father, but gardening is in his blood. His father and his grandfather were vegetable farmers in Mexico, and Miguel’s father wanted his son to learn how to garden. After volunteering at Food Project Farm, Miguel now knows how to grow food—and even enjoys pulling weeds, his father reports.
Miguel volunteered at the farm through an I Have a Dream Foundation program at Timberline PK-8 School. He got to take home fresh produce for family meals, and he even taught the folks at the farm a thing or two, like how to pick a Mexican calabacita squash at its peak flavor. “We had been letting them grow too large,” says Taylor Arenson, marketing and communications coordinator for the nonprofit Growing Gardens, which partnered with the YMCA of Boulder Valley to expand the farm and its functions.
What’s a Food Desert?
According to the U.S. Agriculture Department, the census tract surrounding the Food Project Farm in Longmont is classified as a “food desert.” It’s also a low-income neighborhood tract, meaning that more than 20 percent of the residents live below the poverty line. A food desert is defined as an area with limited access to supermarkets and other sources of fresh, healthy, affordable food.
In urban food deserts, 33 percent or more of residents are a mile or more from a supermarket; in rural food deserts, they’re more than 10 miles away. Other factors also affect accessibility, such as a family’s income and whether they have access to reliable transportation for getting to the grocery store. Of the 65,000 established census tracts in the U.S., the USDA reports that 10 percent can be called food deserts, which affect more than 13 million people.
For more information, visit www.ers.usda.gov.
—Source: USDA Economic Research Service
Today, the 1-acre farm pumps out produce to feed low-income families in the surrounding neighborhood and serves as a teaching farm for nearby schools. But it didn’t start out with such grand goals.
Jessica Collins, multi-branch executive director for the Y, tells the story of the farm’s beginnings in 2010. “The neighborhood around our Y was declared a ‘food desert’ (see “What’s a Food Desert?” on page 55), and we had some extra space so we applied for and received a grant.” The farm began with a small salsa garden the first year, then added corn and potatoes the next. Most of the fresh produce went to the Y’s preschool program. But even with volunteers from Community Food Share and El Comité de Longmont, Collins and other staff members couldn’t keep up with the planting, weeding and harvesting on top of their full-time jobs.
Enter Growing Gardens. In early 2016, the Y partnered with the Boulder nonprofit to expand the site and bring in a full-time farm manager. Kevin Karl was managing an organic farm in Canada at the time, but when he heard about the job, he knew it was for him. “I wanted to do community work and teach, and donate food to people who need it,” Karl says, “so it was perfect for me.”
When he arrived at his new job last winter, the farm was buried in snow. But that didn’t deter Karl. By spring, he’d tripled the farm’s size with nine raised beds for growing various combinations of ingredients (like tomatoes, cilantro, onions and peppers for salsa, and tomatoes, onions, basil and oregano for pizza), rows and rows of fresh greens, a worm-based compost system and two beehives.
This year, he plans to renovate the 350-square-foot greenhouse and tend the memorial fruit orchard, planted last year to honor 8-year-old Peyton Knowlton, who was struck and killed in a crosswalk last year about a mile from the farm.
“It’s amazing to see how much food can be produced without chemicals,” says Starla Harp, a volunteer for OUR Center and the all-organic Food Project Farm. Karl estimates the farm produced enough greens alone last year to fill a school bus with the seats removed to the brim. And greens accounted for only 50 percent of the total yield.
Most of the food goes to Longmont’s OUR Center and nonprofits like There With Care, as well as needy families. “The garden provides fresh produce for OUR center’s daily lunches, and this allows the clients to enjoy healthy organic food all year,” Harp says. “They also appreciate being able to take fresh produce home with them, and we even give them recipes.”
Teach Them to Farm,
Feed Them for Life
The farm is more than a food source, however, Karl says. “We’re not just giving food away; we’re teaching people the skills they need to grow their own food.”
There are five Title I schools (those with high percentages of students from low-income families) within walking distance of the farm. Since the students can easily walk to the farm with their teachers, it doesn’t cut into the schools’ low (or often nonexistent) field-trip budgets. Karl works closely with teachers to fit farm programs into their curriculum.
For example, after a fifth-grade class at Timberline PK-8 read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and learned why chemicals are harmful to bees and other pollinators, the kids visited the farm, where Karl taught them about organic pest control. “We talked about companion planting, crop rotation and row covers,” he says, “and of course, the best method—using your fingers to pick bugs off the leaves.”
The Food Project Farm also welcomes other community groups. Jeff Oliver, a program coordinator for I Have a Dream Foundation of Boulder County, volunteered with a group of Dreamers in the 2016 growing season. “We had a great experience,” he says. Participants learned about the labor that goes into growing fresh food and gained a sense of community through the shared endeavor. At the end of the season, “families brought their favorite salsa recipes,” Oliver says, “and we provided fresh ingredients from the salsa garden.”
Volunteers are always needed to help out on the farm, and Karl continually updates the Growing Gardens’ website (www.growinggardens.org/volunteer) with opportunities.
“I love turning kids on to gardening and food, and watching the light bulbs go off,” Karl says. “Not everyone will grow up to be a farmer, but they’re learning respect for the process. It changes their relationship to food when they know where it comes from.”