The landscape of Denver’s Westwood neighborhood is changing. Squash, tomatoes, chiles, spinach, and melons are sprouting up in backyards. Family members are tending to their gardens and harvesting their own fresh food. And community members are working side-by-side to help transform their neighborhood from its designation as a “food desert”—the United States Department of Agriculture’s term to classify densely populated, low-income areas that lack easy access to healthy food—to a model of urban sustainability.
The shift is the result of the coordinated efforts of community organizations and the local nonprofit Re:Vision International and its focus on community-led projects in Westwood.
As part of the project Learning in the Food Movement, researchers and graduate students from the University of Colorado Boulder are collaborating with these community groups around two goals: first, to study how food systems in food-insecure neighborhoods fulfill community needs; and second, to help increase local residents’ opportunities to leverage educational resources.
Developing Denver’s food system is a complex issue involving many stakeholders, so the project is necessarily interdisciplinary. Learning in the Food Movement was co-created by Susan Jurow and Kevin O’Connor, both professors in the CU Boulder School of Education, and also involves Bernard Amadei from the College of Engineering and Applied Science and Richard Wobbekind from the Leeds School of Business. The project is funded by a CU Boulder Outreach Award, WISE (Women Investing in the School of Education), and the Denver Seeds Initiative.
“We are interested in food politics and community organization,” O’Connor said. “At the same time, we want to rethink learning as more than just the acquisition of standardized forms of knowledge. Traditional kinds of thinking have too often led to the reproduction of the status quo. We want instead to pay attention to people who are working to organize alternative futures and their part in those alternative futures.
“Re:Vision’s work offered a perfect opportunity to bring these different interests together.”
The project hinges on Re:Vision co-founders Eric Kornacki and Joseph Teipel’s use of a promotora model, which they developed to initiate backyard gardening to enhance Westwood’s food system. The model relies on neighborhood residents, called promotoras, who act as liaisons between their community social networks and organizations that promote community change. Together, Westwood families and promotoras design gardens that flourish in small, often non-ideal spaces. They transport compost to backyards, set up automated watering systems, and teach residents to weed vigilantly.
“The promotoras are the lynchpin. They are the community leaders. They are the experts for what their community needs,” said Jurow. “Our goal is to understand what community members value instead of pushing initiatives that we think are useful.”
Initial studies revealed the promotoras’ desires to learn how to become better community organizers, so CU Boulder researchers are conducting train-the- trainer-style workshops. Working closely with Re:Vision, CU Boulder business students helped develop an economically viable food distribution plan and engineering students assisted in the creation of potentially useful products, such as a low-cost solar heating panel that currently is being tested at the Re:Vision office.
“This project is a great opportunity to look at how people influence community development,” Jurow said. “The promotoras could be doing a lot of other things, but they are doing this because they care about their neighbors. As a result, they are bringing so many more healthy vegetables into their community.”
What began with just seven families in 2009 has grown to 200 backyard-garden participants. As Re:Vision’s efforts and other initiatives continue to blossom, Learning in the Food Movement documents how researchers and community organizers are learning with and from one another and in the process are producing new futures for the Westwood neighborhood.
“This project is not just about food,” Jurow said. “We see it as a way to challenge researchers to think about learning differently.”