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  • Jodi Torpey

Colorado Food Summit Strengthens Rural-Urban Connections

Colorado is on the verge of major changes in our food system over the next 30 years. Will we be ready for it?

Brainstorming on a vision for regenerative and nourishing food systems in Colorado by 2050.
Brainstorming on a vision for regenerative and nourishing food systems in Colorado by 2050.

That question is one of the key takeaways from the 2020 Colorado Food Summit held on January 7 at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The Rural-Urban Connections Summit was a first-of-its-kind event organized by the Colorado State University Food Systems Initiative and Denver’s Department of Public Health and Environment. More than 35 partners joined in to support the effort.

CSU is building a campus within the National Western Center called Spur, three separate research and education facilities to focus on the future of food and agriculture, water issues, and animal and human health.

The one-day event brought together food policy experts, producers, processors, buyers, restaurants, retail locations, and farmers markets to discuss ideas for connecting and finding new market opportunities. The goal: To “build wealth for Colorado farmers and ranchers and rural communities.”

More than 300 people wanted in on that, and the buzz was palpable. The day’s atmosphere was electric with an energetic vibe around food, agriculture, and future possibilities.

Becca Jablonski, assistant professor and Food Systems Extension Economist in CSU’s Dept of Agricultural and Resource Economics, and a driving force behind the Food Summit, wel­comed the group. She explained how the summit expands the ideas of two important documents from 2017, The Denver Food Vision and The Colorado Blueprint of Agriculture and Food.

These documents began a food and agriculture conversation to highlight opportunities and challenges around new businesses, new markets, and new collaborations and partnerships.

The Food Summit continued the conversation by focusing on ambitious food goals over the next 10 years. These include a 59 percent increase in the size of Denver’s food economy, $100 million of new capital to Denver food businesses, and 25 percent of the food purchased by public institutions (like Denver Public Schools and Denver Sheriff Dept) being produced in Colorado.

Agriculture contributes $40 billion annually to the Colorado economy with thousands of farms supporting about 170,000 jobs. There’s plenty of room to grow within the constraints of looming challenges like labor shortages, environmental issues, technological changes, and the high cost of undervaluing local food production.

State Agriculture Commissioner Kate Greenberg set the tone for the day by describing how food is the bridge between the rural and urban divide. She said today’s farmers, the next generation of growers and eaters alike, face food system challenges from development, trade and market access, land prices, and pressure on the water supply.

Her call to action for Food Summit attendees was the need to work on what we have in common because we want our farmers and ranchers to stay in business.

Participants were charged with building new relationships; trying to understand different perspectives; considering potential opportunities and tradeoffs with policies, programs and initiatives; and committing to taking action.

Some of that action took place at lunch while celebrating the well-regarded Colorado Proud program. About two dozen local farms, ranches, and food businesses produced the tasty offerings for the day’s meals and refreshments.

The hum of people meeting and connecting continued through the closing reception. Most notably, the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board showcased an assortment of Colorado wine for the crowd.

All sessions at the Food Summit encouraged producers to connect with institutions, farmers to connect with processors, and growers to connect with schools. There were also discussions about growing direct-to-consumer markets and how restaurants and retail locations can expand their locally grown options.

It was standing room only for the session on crafting a 2050 Food Systems Vision for Colorado. During this large focus group, participants had the chance to envision the future they want for Colorado’s food and agriculture. Blake Angelo, coordinator for the Colorado Food Systems Advisory Council, had groups of people discussing the future of food in terms of the environment, diets, economics, culture, technology, and policy.

The brainstorming wasn’t just an exercise in teamwork or creativity, but part of an application for the Rockefeller Foundation Food System Vision Prize for 2050. Organizations selected as Top Visionaries are eligible to receive $200,000 to fund their food systems projects. The prize is “an invitation for organizations across the globe to develop a Vision of the regenerative and nourishing food system that they aspire to create by the year 2050,” according to the prize’s website.

Prior to the group activity, Matt Barry, Chief Development Officer for the National Western Center Authority (NWCA), gave a brief overview of the redevelopment planned at the National Western Stock Show site. The NWCA’s Strategic Implementation Plan from October 2019 includes a proposal to turn the old stadium arena into the 1909 Public Food Market. The market “presents an exciting opportunity for a thriving epicenter of healthy, local, fresh food in the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods. In addition to strengthening local food enterprises, the public food market fosters cultural connections between rural food producers and urban food consumers and draws people to the campus.” Jocelyn Hittle, CSU’s Senior Director for Sustainability and Denver Programs, explained that CSU is one of the main partners for the National Western redevelopment and the “educational anchor.”

CSU is building a campus within the National Western Center called Spur, three separate research and education facilities to focus on the future of food and agriculture, water issues, and animal and human health. The CSU Center for Food and Agriculture has plans for “K-12 education, interactive learning opportunities for families, and flexible conference and exhibit space.”

Spur will provide a platform for partnerships with organizations, like the Denver Botanic Gardens, to use the space, offer programs and take advantage of other opportunities. CSU anticipates breaking ground for Spur this spring and opening all three facilities in 2022.

To dig into the 2020 Colorado Food Summit, presentations are posted online at under the Events tab.

Jodi Torpey is author of Blue Ribbon Vegetable Gardening and The Colorado Gardener’s Companion.

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