To head east on U.S. 50 is to enter a verdant realm of lush fields and towering trees. It’s a greenbelt that meanders along the length of the lower Arkansas River from the city’s eastern edge to Rocky Ford and beyond – a Nile Valley-esque landscape in the midst of the Southwest drylands.
Rows of chiles, corn and squash march in straight lines to the horizon — or at least to the edges of their fields. Mile after mile, rustling leaves and ripening produce stand as summer sentinels, creating a sea of green interrupted by homes, livestock pastures and the occasional local business.
“Since I was 3 or 4 years old, I’ve always been interested (in farming),” said Dalton Milberger, the president of the Pueblo Chile Growers Association. “At 5 years old, I was driving tractors in the field.
“I don’t know why,” he added with a laugh. “It’s quite rewarding. It’s a lot of work, but quite rewarding.”
Colorado is home to 31.8 million operational acres of agricultural land and in 2021 it generated nearly $2.8 billion in crop revenues alone, according to the 2021 State Agriculture Overview. The state’s farms and ranches raised 5.73 million cows, goats, sheep and hogs, and dairy production accounted for 5.27 million pounds of milk, according to the survey.
From Rocky Ford’s iconic melons to Pueblo’s beloved mirasol chiles and everything in between, local growers along the Arkansas nurture a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables every year.
A breakdown in access
This wealth of nutrition is located just a few miles east of the Pueblo city limits; nonetheless, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Access Research Atlas found that, in 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, more than half of Pueblo County and huge chunks of the city proper are considered food deserts. The atlas reports data based on census tracts and weighs income and access to fresh, healthful foods when assigning the designation.
A tract is considered low income if 20 percent or more of its residents fall at or below the U.S. poverty rate; its median family income is no more than 80 percent of the statewide median family income; or the tract is in a metropolitan area and has a median family income less than or equal to 80 percent of the area’s median family income.
Low-access designation is calculated by comparing the number of people at different distances from the nearest supermarket, supercenter or large grocery store and whether they have to travel long distances to access those stores.
The county’s rural eastern plains, where this food is grown, as well as sweeping parts of the East Side, Bessemer neighborhood, Downtown Pueblo and Pueblo West adjacent to Desert Hawk Golf Course all qualify for this designation.
“That is a very recognized problem here in Pueblo County and it’s just such a massive issue that it’s kind of difficult to tackle,” said Laura Griffin, family and consumer science agent for the Colorado State University Extension Office in Pueblo County. “We have people working with Care and Share (Food Bank for Southern Colorado) and the SNAP benefits program and local farmers and the farmers markets, and all that has kind of connected to provide food and assistance … to people in need.”
It’s no secret that there’s a disconnect between the growers who produce the product and the vulnerable populations of local consumers who could desperately use it.
Inequities related to food access are multipronged. They involve infrastructure, employment, education, socioeconomics, a generational cycle of need and global climate change.
There’s a reason David Laskarzewski, co-director of the nonprofit nutrition access agency UpRoot Colorado, uses the phrase “food apartheid” — complete with all the built-in disparities and oppression that word evokes.
“Our food system still has racism and systemic inequity and corporate action” restricting access for vulnerable populations, he said. “Which should be startling.”
According to a 2021 study conducted by the Denver-based nonprofit Hunger Free Colorado, one in three Coloradans is food insecure, meaning they’re not sure where or when they will have their next meal. Some 16 percent of the state’s kids don’t receive adequate nutrition due to financial constraints and 20 percent of adults reported having to skip or cut back on meals in order to make ends meet. The Healthy Kids Colorado 2021 survey found that 17.7 percent of Pueblo County high school students are food insecure and went hungry at least once in the prior 30 days.
This as, in 2019, nearly one in 10 Colorado residents lived at or below the federal poverty guidelines.
UpRoot Colorado works to close the gap by connecting the state’s farmers with volunteer groups to help bring crops out of the fields and into the hands of the state’s hungry residents. Among other things, the agency organizes groups of volunteers to visit everything from commercial farms to backyard orchards and bring in the produce that, for reasons ranging from blemishes to staffing, would otherwise be left behind.
UpRoot calls these events “gleanings” and hopes to host its first such harvest here in Pueblo County this year.
“According to the organization ReFED, there are 34 billion pounds of food left in the fields every year,” Laskarzewski said. “If we can move toward nutrition equity, nutrition security for everyone, we’ll take a burden off the health care system.
“I’m passionate about this because we can do something about it. As people, as a community, we can change it. It was built this way; we can rebuild it.”
A grower’s take
To be clear, local farmers are very aware of the problem and are doing everything they can to help fill bellies for all Pueblo County residents, Milberger said. His store recently expanded into the virtual world, offering travel-restricted consumers a chance to order their food online and find a friend, family member or caregiver who could pick up the package.
Producers juggle the burden of staffing, poor travel infrastructure, their distance from the urban centers where the most vulnerable populations are likely to reside, growing government regulation, the ever-present challenges of climate change and the potential for water redistribution under the 2020 Colorado Water Plan. And they’re doing all of this while operating at profit margins that can make it difficult to fill their own families’ bellies.
“To be a producer is really an act of heroism and a lot of producers really aren’t compensated properly,” Laskarzewski said. “We’re talking about a life-sustaining resource.”
It was clear that all this weighed on Milberger as he sat in his family’s farm store off U.S. 50 on a sweltering July afternoon. The 27-year-old’s laughing demeanor turned sober as he talked about the barriers to getting the critical but less-than-perfect produce from his 400-acre farm to the huge swaths of the county that the USDA identifies as low-income, low-access.
“For a producer to do that, we’d have to hire three or four more people. People are hard to find,” he said. “We produce an abundance of product – it’s just finding the personnel who would be able to deliver it and create that avenue.”
Additionally, water weighs heavily on Milberger’s mind. It takes 1 million gallons to raise a single acre of chiles, he said, and proposed changes to the state’s water plan to restrict some agricultural access could have a catastrophic impact on the already-complicated issue of food access and hunger.
“Between the seven farms out here, we produce a lot of fruits and vegetables,” he said. “Without us, if something happened where we lost our water or something happened to our ground, it would be devastating to the entire community, up and down the Arkansas River.”
The prospect of moving water shares from ag land to growing urban centers farther up the Front Range weighs heavily on Pueblo County producers.
“People talk about, ‘Oh, we could just take a little bit,’ but that little bit affects a lot,” Milberger said. “If we have to cut back a little bit, the prices go up and it’s a bad deal for everybody.”
Filling the gap
Just as the problem of food insecurity is multipronged, so too are the efforts to find a solution. A growing network of nutrition specialists, public health experts and food equity advocates has sprung out of Pueblo’s soil in a grassroots effort to make sure constituents have the culinary access they need to live healthy, happy lives.
Sierra Gomez, a 23-year-old senior at Colorado State University Pueblo, is a community food systems intern for UpRoot Colorado and is leading the effort to launch a gleaning program here. The Pueblo native is studying health science and found a specialized calling in attempting to fix some of the gaps in the area’s food system.
“I have this desire to improve (the community) … and I figured that providing people with healthy food would be a way to do so,” she said. “There’s an astonishing number of people who just need assistance — nutritional assistance programs — so it’s important for people to learn more about where food comes from.”
Improving access could go a long way toward shrinking the community’s public health issues, said Shylo Dennison, program manager for the Pueblo Department of Public Health and Environment. Among her myriad responsibilities, Dennison is critical in the development of the five-year Community Health Improvement Plan.
In the 2021 plan, obesity and behavioral health were both listed as top priorities. No surprise: Nutritional access plays a major role in both.
“Food insecurity definitely impacts both mental and physical health and your ability to actually perform and know where you fit in the world,” Dennison said. “Hunger impacts everything. None of us can think straight and be at our best when we’re hungry.”
In the past decade, the department partnered with the CSU extension office, local school districts and the Pueblo Food Project to identify not just the factors that contribute to food insecurity but what programs are already in place to help reduce barriers and fill empty stomachs.
“We’re taking a look at … how we can impact every area where people live, work and play,” Dennison said. “What’s happening at the school system? How do (residents) access groceries and fresh options? How can they access community-supported agriculture? We’re looking at food assistance programs like enrollment in WIC or SNAP. … We know that unfortunately there are ton of people who are qualified for those programs but aren’t enrolled.”
It’s not just a question of access to quantity of food — although that certainly plays into it — but quality. In some areas, food is available but it’s nutrition-poor, processed and unhealthy, the experts said. And that can lead to an uptick in health problems such as diabetes, obesity, malnutrition and heart issues, Dennison said
“That’s definitely why we have prioritized not only access to food, but also access to healthy and affordable foods,” she said. “Hunger truly is impacting everything and every portion of our lives. It impacts our health, it impacts economic availing, educational attainment.”
Enter Megan Moore and the Pueblo Food Project.
Moore, a graduate of CSU Pueblo, is program manager of the food project, a grassroots effort to serve as the community’s culinary clearing house. The agency runs a local-only food relief program that gathers and distributes foodstuffs to relief organizations such as local partner pantries and Care and Share. It has started a food entrepreneur program to grow both creatives’ talents and accessible food plats throughout the city; it also acts as a coalition builder among the many stakeholders in the fight against hunger.
“Because we have that model, we are able to really have a better and stronger community connection,” Moore said. “That’s how we create … health equity and food justice is a good way to put it.”
If food security was already an issue in the county, the impact of COVID-19 has launched it into a full-blown crisis, she said. The impact of the pandemic, she said, was “unbelievable.”
“At first we had incredible shortages, and we’re still seeing those shortages in different ways,” Moore said. “COVID showed us the things that are lacking, per se, in our communities, and it definitely brought those issues (to light) even more.
“We see even now, after some recovery, that pantries are very busy and still have significant needs that arise out of that.”
Moore said here in Pueblo County, nearly a quarter of residents live at or below the federal poverty line and receive governmental support.
“That’s just poverty,” she said. “That’s not the families that are still struggling to make ends meet, even if they are above the poverty line
“The need is significant here. … The good news is we’re here and we’re trying to make a difference.”
A lush ‘desert’
The desertArtLAB field site in Pueblo could be easily overlooked. It’s a humble plat within sight of Dutch Clark Stadium with a wooden split-rail fence and rows of cholla cactus and yucca. In the dry cityscape, the xeriscaping of this well-kept space blends quietly into the background.
When Matthew Garcia speaks about the work that has been a centerpiece of his career for the past decade, though, the site becomes much more.
“What we started focusing on 10 years ago was dry-land ecological practice. A big part of that is food practice,” he said.
Garcia, a Pueblo native and art and media professor in the CSU Pueblo School of Creativity and Practice, launched the lab with his partner-artist – educator, curator and researcher April Bojorquez. While pursuing Master’s of Fine Arts degrees at Arizona State University, the pair had the opportunity to participate in an interdisciplinary project related to food systems and community engagement. One of those projects was a community garden.
“This food project was in the historically Chicano/Hispanic portion of town in south Phoenix,” Garcia said. “The community wasn’t coming for the fresh vegetables and weren’t going for things like kale.”
It turned out there was a cultural disparity that the well-intentioned planners of the garden didn’t take into consideration.
“It wasn’t that they didn’t want to eat vegetables,” Garcia said. “They didn’t eat kale. This community eats corn, beans and squash. It eats fresh vegetables in their way, but that’s not what you’re growing.”
Garcia and Bojorquez specialize in Hispanic/Chicanx/Latinx cultural studies, Indigenous practice and art. From this combination of expertise arose the dream of the field project and a living installation that demonstrates the resiliency of dryland food systems. Hence the cactus that, it turns out, are not just soil restorative but a life-sustaining food source with indigenous roots thousands of years deep.
“In the drylands, the 4,000 years of food practice don’t look like what people expect them to look like,” Garcia said. “What we really tried to think about when we talk about food security and food practice is how we can reconnect with dryland food practice. Things that need no water.”
A dozen years later, Garcia said, “We’re really in it. It’s more important now … than ever to engage this idea that you can have food practices in the drylands.”
Engaging indigenous and ancient techniques, he said, can help develop an environmentally sustainable and healthful food system and honor an often-overlooked cultural heritage.
“This is a place with roots and that’s exactly what we’re trying to grow there,” Garcia said. “We’re trying to grow roots in the conversation of how food can look in the dryland. This is not new; this is ancient.”
It’s another vibrant, viable and thriving piece in the very complicated puzzle.
“It’s going to take the entire community to solve this,” Pueblo Food Project’s Moore said of food insecurity. “One particular fix isn’t going to change everything. … It’s going to take an entire community effort and a lot of awareness to get to a place where we have a really solid, strong and responsive food system.
“The good news is Pueblo has so much food available. We’re so close to the farms and there’s so much opportunity for us to feed the community.”