Along Colorado’s Front Range, at the base of the Rocky Mountains, the three most prominent communities just couldn’t be more different.
Denver is the epicenter of the New West, the broad-shouldered city in the process of rapid gentrification, and where roughly one third of the population is Latino.
Ninety minutes to the south, Colorado Springs has deep conservative roots, “a playground for pro-life, pro-gun evangelical Christians.” The US Air Force Academy is located just outside of town.
Two hours north of “the Springs,” home to Buddhists, Bohemians, and bicyclists, Boulder is a very white and affluent community, where the natural food industry plays a strong role in the local economy.
Last month, I had the privilege to speak at events in Denver and Colorado Springs, which were sponsored by or included presenters from the Boulder, Denver and Colorado Springs Food Rescue organizations (BFR, DFR and CSFR). These groups exist independently of each other but share a common lineage, outlook, and programming.
During the two afternoons I spent with these groups, my understanding of what it meant to rescue food was rendered unsalvageable by conversations with the staff from these groups. To me, the term “food rescue” has always evoked the image of volunteers driving around in a van picking up leftovers from a glitzy event or wilting lettuce from the local Safeway, to drop them off at a homeless shelter. It’s apolitical, logistical, and superficial.
These three groups do pick up excess food from local supermarkets, such as Whole Foods and Sprouts. And in their typically eco-Colorado way, they do much of their deliveries on bicycle. But it’s what they do- or don't do- with the food that makes them so radically different than your average food recovery group.
First off, almost all of what they pick up is fresh and healthy. Turner Wyatt, the executive director of Denver Food Rescue notes that 85% of their distribution is produce and 99% perishable.
All three groups distribute the food to pickup sites located in low-income neighborhoods, through “no-cost grocery programs” (similar to social supermarkets in the UK). There is no distinction made between volunteer and recipient, and the very communities that they benefit also operate the programs. In some cases, community members also handle the food pick-up.
Zac Chapman, the director of the Colorado Springs Food Rescue group acknowledges that the purpose of the no cost grocery programs is not to reduce hunger, but to build health equity. Before working in a community, CSFR starts out by seeking to understand how health inequities affect the neighborhood, by engaging in dialogues with local residents and leaders. Their partnerships, programs, and hires all flow from that dialogue.
Like his colleagues in Boulder and Denver, Zac believes that the typical model of a non-profit parachuting into a community must be replaced by partnerships that build community power. Turner echoes this sentiment, believing that every charity is a toxic charity, and the power to change itself lies within every community’s abilities. He sees DFR’s role as one of bridge-building to food businesses to provide legitimacy and logistics support. DFR also plays an important role in fostering the capacity of community groups to safely and effectively distribute the food.
Similarly, Zac, Turner, and Hayden Dansky, their Boulder counterpart, make a clear and emphatic distinction between no cost grocery programs and food pantries. To them, pantries are not located in communities where they are most needed. Their volunteers don’t speak the language of the participants. They often require documents that the immigrant or refugee participants do not possess. And they manifest a top down toxic style of charity with uneven power relations between recipient and volunteers.
Zac acknowledges that “food rescue” is a misnomer for the community organizing, equity-oriented work that they do. It only represents the mechanics, not the heart and soul of what they do. He expects that Colorado Springs Food Rescue will roll out a new identity by 2019.
Indicative of this broader direction, the three groups host an annual Food Forward Summit. The next one takes place in late April in Denver and will focus on food and gentrification. It is billed as an “un-conference,” which like their other work, seeks to break down the conventional conference model of elite speakers dumping information onto a community audience. This year’s meeting will focus on the intersection of food and gentrification, a hot topic in the rapidly growing Front Range communities.
Why did these three groups evolve in this direction? It helps to understand that Denver and Colorado Springs were born from Boulder’s experience. Until last year, Colorado Springs used Boulder Food Rescue as its fiscal sponsor. Staff at Denver Food Rescue worked in Boulder, before starting their own organization. And Boulder came out of a very organic process in 2011, the product of a group of friends living together in a communal house called the Radish. They started in the same way that many food recovery groups begin: by noticing that supermarkets throw out a lot of edible food and there was a lot of need in the community. Soon they were serving meals in the park to the homeless community. The attendees were surprised that the program organizers actually shared the meal with them and inquired about their needs. Noone had treated them with such respect and dignity. That revelation helped Hayden and colleagues to gain a better understanding of the organizing power of food, of how it could serve as a tool to build relationships and to create more just social structures.
Hayden attributes Boulder’s approach to two factors: the consensual decision making process that the group’s founders learned from living under the same roof in a cooperative house, and the lessons learned from participating in a social justice leadership program at Colorado University.
Hayden reiterates BFR’s social justice roots, “Most food rescue groups focus on food waste and the false assumption that rescuing food will automatically feed all the hungry people in the world. That doesn’t address what is broken in the system. Hunger is a symptom of a bigger problem. Food is a tool to do organizing work, but you can’t do a lot of change work if people’s basic needs are not being met.”